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United Nations calls Facebook a "useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate”

The United Nations issued a report today alleging that the military in Myanmar had "genocidal intent"
August 27 · Issue #195 · View online
The Interface
The United Nations issued a report today alleging that the military in Myanmar had “genocidal intent” when it committed mass murders and gang rapes of the minority Muslim Rohingya population. It called for generals to be punished for human rights atrocities. And it also implicated Facebook.
“The role of social media is significant,” the report’s authors wrote. “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the internet. Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective.”
The report went on: “The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined. 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.”
The report escalated criticism against Facebook that the United Nations began in the spring, when the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar told reporters that Facebook had played a “determining role” in spreading hate speech.
Facebook, for its part, had a ready response — and it was a decisive one. Here’s Antoni Slodkowski in Reuters:
Facebook said on Monday it was removing several Myanmar military officials from the social media website and an Instagram account to prevent the spread of “hate and misinformation” after reviewing the content.
It was the first time Facebook banned a country’s military or political leaders, according to Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja. She said the bans could not be appealed.
We’ve often discussed here the question of when, if ever, a social media platform ought to ban accounts of government officials. It comes up frequently in discussions of whether Twitter should ban President Donald Trump, for example, whose own tweets have sometimes walked the line against inciting violence.
Twitter has said that it holds those tweets to a different standard, because they are newsworthy. And it’s easy to imagine Facebook making a similar argument about Myanmar. The plight of the Rohingya is a subject of fierce political debate in the country, and what the country’s top generals are saying about it could easily be categorized as news.
That’s what makes today’s move by Facebook so significant. It marks a line where the company has decided that newsworthiness of speech is no longer recognized as a sufficient defense to keep hateful rhetoric on the platform. And in a country where, as the UN investigators say, Facebook is the internet, that could have significant consequences. Here’s Reuters again:
Facebook’s action means an essential blackout of the military’s main channel of public communication, with pages followed by millions of people no longer available to a population that sees the social media app as virtually synonymous with the internet.
What does it mean when your country’s leadership loses its social media accounts? Will Myanmar rise up and follow their generals on Gab? We’re about to find out.
While the UN criticized Facebook today, it also gave them cover to take an action it almost certainly would have rather avoided. And it also distracted from the company’s ongoing struggle to even comprehend the volume and variety of hate speech permeating its operation in Myanmar, which BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan, Lam Thuy Vo, and Aung Naing Soe detailed today in a thorough new analysis.
Note that this analysis covers only posts from politicians, and doesn’t even get into what average citizens have been posting. (Reuters did that version of this story earlier this month.)
BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 4,000 posts by politicians from the Arakan National Party (ANP), and found that 1 in 10 of the posts — made between March 2017 and February 2018 — contained hate speech as defined by Facebook’s own public community standards. The ANP is the most popular party in Rakhine state, which was home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya before they were expelled last year. It says it represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhines, the dominant group in the state, which is also the home of the Rohingya and other groups.
Posts by members of Rakhine state’s parliament compared Rohingya to dogs, said Muslim women were too ugly to rape, falsely stated Rohingya torched their own houses for a payout from NGOs, and accused Muslims of seeking to become the dominant group in the state by having too many children. Some even told Muslims to get ready to be killed. Some of the most popular posts identified by BuzzFeed News as hate speech garnered 3,400 reactions or were shared up to 9,500 times. Asked about the posts, Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary and spokesperson for the ANP, said he had never seen members of the party MPs post about other religions on Facebook, despite the evidence. “As general secretary of the party, I have never seen my party members post hate speech online,” he said.
Many posts had been live for months when BuzzFeed emailed Facebook about them, after which they were finally removed.
On the whole, Monday’s news — however messy — feels like progress on the part of the platform. It shouldn’t take a genocide to get someone removed from Facebook, but it still feels like an important precedent to set. The line can always be moved from genocide toward more garden-variety forms of hate speech — and I expect it will be.
Note also that the news comes ahead of yet more hearings in the United States Congress on September 5th about content moderation, in which we can expect Myanmar to come up more once.
This batch of hearings bears watching in part because cries of “censorship” on the part of Republicans leading the hearings have always rung false. Now that Facebook actually has censored the top leaders of a sovereign nation, some of those questions may land a little differently.

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