Facebook's Efforts 'Not Nearly Sufficient' in Genocide-Torn Myanmar, UN Investigator Says

Photo: Zach Gibson (Getty)

It’s been nearly two years since the bloody peak of a social media-fueled genocide in Southeast Asia, but Facebook is still not doing enough to prevent the ongoing promotion of violence and hate in Myanmar on its social network, according to a member of the United Nations team that found the Silicon Valley company for years failed to stop its platform from being used to incite genocide in the Asian nation.

“I think there has been meaningful and significant change from Facebook, but it’s not nearly sufficient,” Christopher Sidoti, the UN investigator, said by phone last week.

Facebook’s early failures in Myanmar are well documented. In the face of a years-long build-up of racist and hateful propaganda on the social network, as of 2015, just two people on the company’s content review team spoke Burmese, even as it made billions in annual profits. Ultimately, the build-up of hate on Facebook fueled a military-led genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.

“At the height of the situation in 2017, Facebook was largely passive,” Sidoti said. “Facebook’s actions can only be described as minimal. It was as though the approach was apologize after the fact rather than try to prevent it in the first place.”

The United Nations fact-finding mission in Myanmar released the milestone 2018 report covering the entire breadth of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. One key dimension was the use of social media—Facebook in particular—by powerful figures in Myanmar to incite hate and violence across the country.

“The role of social media is significant [in the genocide of the Rohingya people]. ... Although improved in recent months, the response of Facebook has been slow and ineffective,” the UN report states. “The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined.”

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Since 2018, Facebook has repeatedly said it is now taking a more active role in Myanmar. The company has admitted its poor initial response both internally and externally, including in its own report on the subject released shortly after the UN study. The company now employs around 100 people who speak Myanmar’s language now, Sidoti said, and has banned key figures in the Rohingya genocide.

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But as the United Nations continues to investigate ongoing violence and political repression in Myanmar, Sidoti, an Australian human rights lawyer, said the company “still has a very long way to go.”

“There is still the denigration the Rohingya specifically and minorities in general,” Sidoti said. “There is still the glorification of the military, the general promotion of the military’s role in Myanmar society, the military that led the violence. In particular, the denigration of the Rohingya is continuing. I’m not seeing in the last month material that strongly incites violence like we did see in 2017, but general racist postings are still present.”

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The genocide, persecution, and extended violence against ethnic minorities in Myanmar hit a peak in 2017. As of late last year, at least 10,000 members of the Rohingya minority have been killed, largely by Buddhist nationalists, while violence impacts the entirety of the country, according to a “conservative” estimate in the UN report. Over 700,000 Rohingya have reportedly fled the country.

“But even the report commissioned by Facebook itself indicated that only around half of the posts removed by Facebook were identified by Facebook,” Sidoti said. “They’re still reliant on being informed by outsiders, and they’re not yet anywhere near satisfactory in their performance in removing material—and certainly nowhere near satisfactory in preventing posting of this material in the first place.”

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SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - November 14: Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the ASEAN-Russia summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on November 14, 2018 in Singapore. Leaders from around the world gathered this week in Singapore during the 33rd ASEAN Summit as well as related summits, including Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who joined the meetings amidst ongoing trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Photo: Ore Huiying (Getty)

Facebook is not just another social network in Myanmar. Instead, it often serves as residents’ entry portal to the internet in general. “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where, for most users, Facebook is the Internet,” the September 2018 UN report reads. The country only really came online in a big way around 2010, and most phones came with Facebook as the portal to the web, Sidoti explained. As such, Facebook is a major means of both one-to-one communication and mass communication in Myanmar.

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Facebook has been used by ultra-nationalist groups promoting violence, Buddhist extremist organizations, units and individuals within the military, Bamar nationalist extremist groups, and different aspects of the Myanmar political system, Sidoti said.

Although the current level of violence is considerably lower than it was in 2017, violence and persecution continues. Rhoyinga are being confined, and they have great difficulty gaining access to food either locally or from international agencies that are only given sporadic access by the resistant national Myanmar government, according to Sidoti. The Rakhine State is the site of much of today’s physical violence as clashes continue there.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council received the first substantial report on Myanmar last September and supported the investigators’ recommendations. One recommendation was to prepare for prosecutions, a mechanism that takes considerable time in the UN system.

Another recommendation was extending the fact-finding mission for one more year until mid-September 2019. The UN will release a new series of reports between the summer and fall of 2019 based on the investigators’ future findings. After that, Myanmar is ramping up for an election in 2020. Given the ongoing misinformation fight and the Myanmar government’s actions over the last two years, Sidoti is not optimistic about what comes next.

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“We’re not seeing any increase in democratic space,” Sidoti said. “That means no freedom of media, the media is still under severe clampdown. That means no freedom of assembly. The number of political prisoners may well have grown over the last 12 months. The outlook is not positive.”

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The UN mission in Myanmar has a broad mandate, but social media is one of the key points commanding continued investigation from the United Nations. In the next five months, the UN fact-finding mission will re-engage with Facebook about what the company is doing and what more it can do. That will require cooperation and action from the Silicon Valley company—cooperation that Sidoti would like to see escalated.

“When we have asked questions [of Facebook], we have received answers,” Sidoti said. “But the concern is we have to ask questions rather than information being provided at the initiative of Facebook itself. There is a need [for] much more transparency and self-reporting than what we’ve had today.”

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As the 2018 UN report states, “The mission regrets that Facebook is unable to provide country-specific data about the spread of hate speech on its platform, which is imperative to assess the adequacy of its response.” Facebook’s transparency report, while it does have a section devoted to hate speech, still does not appear to contain country-specific data. We’ve reached out to the company for clarification and will update if we receive a response.

Finally, from the starting point of a uniquely 21st-century genocide, the UN investigators will be looking at the broader questions of regulation of social media platforms. Sidoti believes “the penny has dropped”— that even Silicon Valley executives are now calling for regulation on their industry.

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In Australia, Sidoti’s home country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently put forth legislation boasting significant fines and even prison sentences for social media executives who fail to remove violent content from their platform. The push comes after the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. Morrison is planning on raising the issue with world powers in G20 meetings in June.

“The question is how we move from a recognition that the current regulatory framework is inadequate to developing and implementing one as quickly as possible,” Sidoti said. “This is not something that can be allowed to take another five or 10 years.”

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Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247