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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Facebook blamed for spreading hate in Myanmar, Sri Lanka

The social media giant has come under increasing pressure to clamp down on inflammatory posts

There is mounting pressure on Facebook and other social media giants to do more to snuff out hate speech. (AFP)
There is mounting pressure on Facebook and other social media giants to do more to snuff out hate speech. (AFP)

Facebook was embroiled in a fresh storm last week as UN officials probing allegations of genocide in Myanmar accused it of spreading vitriol against Rohingya Muslims.

The social media giant was also blamed for contributing to anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka that left three people dead and the country in a state of emergency.

Facebook has come under increasing pressure to do more to snuff out hate speech and inflammatory posts in Europe and the US. But its activities in Asia have typically attracted less attention, even though the stakes are potentially even higher.

“In the West, we talk about online hate speech and yes, it’s a problem, but no one is actually dying as a result,” Dasha Ilic, a spokesperson from Media Diversity Institution in London, told The National. “Over there [in Asia], where you see it playing a part in ethnic cleansing or persecution, it is clearly more serious. So much more work needs to be done to clamp down on it.”

On Monday, two UN human rights officials tasked with looking into abuses in Myanmar launched a blistering attack on Facebook.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar, told reporters that social media had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissention and conflict” in the country.

“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 added.

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Facebook has seen a meteoric rise in Myanmar, but its growth has coincided with a rise in ethnically-charged hate speech and violence, particularly in the western Rakhine state.

Tensions in the region bubbled over last August when militant attacks sparked a crackdown led by security forces, sending nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

While the military campaign has been castigated abroad, it enjoys broad domestic support in a mainly Buddhist country where Islamophobia has been stewing for years.

The UN human rights chief recently said he strongly suspected acts of genocide have taken place, although senior Myanmar officials denied the accusations.

UN investigator Yanghee Lee said Facebook had helped the impoverished country but had also been used to spread hate speech.

“It was used to convey public messages but we know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebooks and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities,” she told reporters.

“I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.”

Facebook responded to the criticism by saying it is working to remove hate speech in Myanmar

“We take this incredibly seriously and have worked with experts in Myanmar for several years to develop safety resources and counter-speech campaigns,” a spokesperson said.

“Of course, there is always more we can do and we will continue to work with local experts to help keep our community safe.”

Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook's news feed, acknowledged that real-world violence is one of the worst possible effects of social media. In a statement to Slate Magazine about the criticisms it is facing in Myanmar, he admitted: "Connecting the world isn't always going to be a good thing," adding, "we lose some sleep over this."

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In Sri Lanka, similar fears that Facebook is being used to fan anti-Muslim violence led the government to impose a week-long ban on social media networks.

Three people were killed in clashes in early March when Sinhalese Buddhists, angered by a killing of a driver, attacked mosques and Muslim-owned properties in the central Kandy district, a popular tourist destination.

According to the government, some of the violence was instigated by posts on Facebook threatening more attacks on Muslims.

A state of emergency was declared and, on March 7, access was cut to Facebook as well as to messaging apps Viber and Whatsapp.

On Thursday, the ban on Facebook was lifted after President Maithripala Sirisena said the tech giant had agreed to step up efforts to remove hate speech posted on its platform. Viber and Whatsapp had been unblocked the day before.

“My secretary has discussed with officials of Facebook, who have agreed that its platform will not be used for spreading hate speech and inciting violence,” the president said on Twitter.

Mr Sirisena did not elaborate on what, if any, concrete commitments Facebook had made.

Earlier in the week, the social media platform had said it was responding to Sri Lanka's concerns over incendiary material. It added that it had clear rules against hate speech and incitement to violence.

Western governments have taken an increasingly hard line on Facebook and other tech giants for allowing racist, divisive or fake information to spread unchecked.

Facebook has repeatedly promised to “do better” to clamp down on such material. Last Wednesday, it banned the official page of Britain First, the far-right fringe group that US President Donald Trump once retweeted to near universal condemnation.

"We do not do this lightly, but they have repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups, which disqualifies the pages from our service,” Facebook said.

Ms Ilic said that Facebook now needs to accelerate efforts to ban those who spread hate speech in other parts of the world.

“To their credit, we have seen Facebook trying to fight hate speech in Europe and the US, but similar action now also needs to be taken elsewhere,” she said. “It’s worrying what we have seen in places such as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, but I think this will force Facebook to step up its efforts against hatred and fake messages in Asia and in the rest of the world.”