In Myanmar, Facebook brings light as well as darkness

It has been more than eight months since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by the US Congress over the Cambridge Analytica breach. “I promise I will do better” would be a simple short sentence to sum up Zuckerberg’s stressful two-day congressional testimony.

He admitted to US senators that partly because of his mistake it became possible for Cambridge Analytica to misuse Facebook users’ data to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. As a leader, he took the blame and promised to get things right in the future.

As promised, it seems that Facebook has been tirelessly working to avoid the same mistake. For instance, Facebook set up what they call a “war room” to prevent potential manipulators, in particular from foreign countries, from using the platform to meddle in the 2018 US midterm elections.

The reality is that Facebook has become so prodigious that it has become its responsibility to make sure that not only US elections but elections around the world are not negatively impacted by its powerful platform.

Last month, lawmakers from nine countries gathered for the inaugural hearing of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation in London. The only Asian country represented at the hearing was Singapore, which sent three lawmakers. Despite the absence of Zuckerberg from the event, a seat was reserved for him with his nameplate on the conference roundtable. In place of Zuckerberg, Facebook sent Richard Allan, its vice-president for policy solutions, to address inquiries and concerns raised by the attendees.

Fueling religious tensions
During the hearing, Allan was questioned by a Singaporean lawmaker regarding a Facebook post written in Sinhala that called for the killing of all Muslims. The post was believed to have played a role in fueling religious tensions that erupted in March in Sri Lanka. Allan admitted that it had failed to remove the post quickly because of a mistake by one of its employees. Last April, Zuckerberg was asked a similar question by US Senator Patrick Leahy about failing to take down a similar abusive post that called for the killing of journalists in Myanmar.

Allan said Facebook was investing tremendous resources in the development of “a dictionary of hate speech terms in every language” by using artificial intelligence (AI). In addition, when it comes to protecting election integrity globally, he also explained that Facebook is establishing war rooms for every national-level election happening around the world.

He gave a recent Latvian election as an example of Facebook using its war room strategy to make sure that the election was not negatively impacted by their platform. Regardless of the size of the country, Allan said that Facebook will play a role in protecting the integrity of elections around the world.

This is, however, not to suggest that elections will be influenced by Facebook’s activities, he clarified. Allan seems to understand that Facebook shouldn’t have a role in deciding if an election is free and fair. “And again, I want to repeat, the people who decide if an election is free and fair is you, and your authorities, and the political parties,” he added.

When it comes to addressing hate speech-related issues around the world, what Allan described (the idea of creating “a dictionary of hate speech terms in every language”) is plausible to some extent. But it is a bit abstract and perhaps even an over-ambitious project. No matter how much effort Facebook makes, unless there is enough collaboration from governments around the world, it is impossible to prevent hate speech completely. People often tend to forget that governments are also part of the problem in almost every country. Preventing hate speech requires governments to devote sufficient resources to improving the digital literacy skills of their citizens.

In the case of Myanmar, even among so-called educated Facebook users, the level of discrimination they express against minority groups, in particular the Rohingya Muslims, is extremely shocking. People easily tend to forget that it is simply not right to discriminate against any individual or group based on their skin color, religious affiliation or cultural background.

A few months ago, Facebook announced that it had taken down several pages and accounts of some organizations and individuals who were believed to play a role, either directly or indirectly, in committing serious human rights abuses, including genocide in Myanmar. Facebook justified its actions by referring to a report produced by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Burma, which was authorized by the UN Human Rights Council.

This action angered a lot of people in Myanmar, especially those who love the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw), which has been accused of crimes against humanity by several international rights groups. Extreme nationalists and pro-military groups even took a few days off from work and took to the streets holding anti-Facebook posters to protest the platform’s interference in the domestic affairs of Myanmar. And a few people even went so far as to say that they would delete their Facebook accounts and switch to a Russian social networking service called VKontakte (VK).

Most recently, as parts of its on-going efforts to tackle hate speech in Myanmar, Facebook announced that it had taken down hundreds of additional accounts, pages and groups that are believed to engage in what Facebook calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” a term referring to groups or individuals that work together to mislead others on specific issues. Despite these efforts, Facebook is under pressure for not doing enough on Myanmar-related issues.

For instance, the Burma Campaign UK, a London-based NGO that aims to improve human rights and democracy in Myanmar, recently put Facebook, along with other multinational corporations, under its “Dirty List” for “directly or indirectly helping to finance the military dictatorship in Burma [Myanmar].”

It seems that people are only talking about one side of Facebook in Myanmar and tend to forget the positive things that the platform has brought to the country. With soaring mobile penetration rates in recent years, Facebook has become one of the most popular social media platforms in Myanmar, according to a 2017 public opinion survey conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI).

For the first time, people in Myanmar are being informed about things happening not only around them but also around the world at the speed of light through Facebook. This is extraordinary progress if one thinks about how Myanmar was cut off from the outside world for almost five decades by the previous military junta.

Generally speaking, Burmese people are politically active. Despite the substantial restrictions still in place infringing on the right to freedom of expression, people often express their political opinions and views on Facebook. And it has become more difficult to hide injustice because of truth-seeking Facebook users in Myanmar.

For instance, a few months ago Yangon’s Eastern District Court dropped a case against three suspects who were accused of killing a local Facebook comedian. The court ruled that there was not enough evidence to proceed. This controversial court decision sparked a public outcry among Myanmar Facebook users over the legitimacy of the judicial system. People started expressing their concerns regarding the court decision and changed their Facebook profile pictures to the phrase “Failed Law,” suggesting that the justice system in Myanmar is falling apart.

This Facebook profile campaign became so widespread that it reached a point where most Facebook users started thinking about the case. Faced with a growing public outcry on Facebook, the president eventually ordered an investigation into the motives behind dropping of the case. It was later found that Yangon Region Attorney General U Han Htoo, along with other legal officers, took bribes to drop the case.

A lot of people are using Facebook for good causes in Myanmar, either to help the victims of the civil war by creating a public fundraising program or to empower small business owners. And people are connected more than ever before in this once little-known state. In the place where institutions are still extremely weak in fulfilling people’s basic needs, Facebook has become a powerful tool to solve pressing social issues in Myanmar.

If Facebook deserves blame for contributing to hate speech in Myanmar, it also deserves some credit for bringing light to those in darkness. Indeed, there is a better side of Facebook in Myanmar.


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