Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the social media company is aware that its tools have been used to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda and "incite real harm" in Myanmar.
"The Myanmar issues have, I think, gotten a lot of focus inside the company. And they’re real issues and we take this really seriously,” he said in an interview with US-based online news site, Vox
, published on Monday.
He said Facebook was paying attention to its role as a platform for disseminating messages that could fuel conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
Around 700,000 people of the ethnic minority group have fled the Rakhine state for Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh since the Myanmar government launched a military crackdown in August 2017 following insurgent attacks on police outposts and an army base in Rakhine.
These Rohingyas have joined over 400,000 who were already living in the camps in Bangladesh’s southernmost district, Cox’s Bazar.
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This handout aerial photograph taken on February 9, 2018 and recieved by AFP on February 12 allegedly shows bulldozed villages in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state AFP
The UN and several Western countries have said the crackdown was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Myanmar has rejected the allegation, saying its forces were waging a legitimate campaign against "terrorists" who attacked government forces.
During his interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein
, Zuckerberg recalled one incident where Facebook detected that people were trying to spread “sensational messages” through its Messenger app to incite violence on both sides of the conflict.
He also acknowledged that in such instances, it was clear that people were using the social networking site “to incite real-world harm.” But in this case, at least, the messages were detected and stopped from going through, he added.
“This is certainly something that we’re paying a lot of attention to,” Zuckerberg continued.
He said this was a real issue and they want to bring all the tools at their disposal to bear on eliminating hate speech, preventing the incitement of violence, and basically protecting the integrity of civil discussions in places like Myanmar, as well as places like the US, that do get a disproportionate amount of attention.
Vox reported that the violence in Myanmar highlighted the duality of social media in general, and Facebook in particular, as a force for both good and ill.
Citing a New York Times report
published in October, it said anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya memes and propaganda had spread virulently through Facebook since the government crackdown began in Rakhine, inciting violence and eroding support for the Rohingya’s plight.
Public accounts of verified government and military leaders — as well as the extremely influential accounts of nationalistic Buddhist monks — included false and inflammatory posts about the Rohingya, according to that report.
UN human rights experts investigating a possible genocide in Myanmar last month also said Facebook had played a role in spreading hate speech there, reports Reuters
Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, told reporters that social media had played a “determining role” in Myanmar.
“It has substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media,” he said.
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Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R) gives her report next to the Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 12, 2018 Reuters
UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee too said Facebook was used by the Myanmar government to disseminate information to the public. “Everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar.”
“It was used to convey public messages but we know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebook accounts and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities,” she said. “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it was originally intended for.”
Facebook, however, responded to the criticism by saying in a statement that there “is no place for hate speech or content that promotes violence,” and that it has been working with experts in Myanmar to address the issue.
The social media giant has taken down some posts, including temporarily shutting down the account of an ultranationalist Buddhist monk who posted incendiary content, reported Vox.
But Facebook has also been accused of removing posts that documented violence against the Rohingyas, which underscores how challenging and complicated it is to even attempt to police the social network.
Zuckerberg said in his interview that Facebook was constantly trying to navigate between these distinctions — deciding what qualified as hate speech and what was valid political speech, among other problems.
“I think, more than a lot of other companies, we’re in a position where sometimes we have to adjudicate those kinds of disputes between different members of our community,” he said.
He also agreed that Facebook needed to improve as its global reach expanded and make sure that all of the people in different parts of the community around the world were getting due attention although it was a constant challenge for them.