How Facebook is promoting ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

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With more than one billion active users who have the ability to post whatever they choose, it is hard for Facebook to monitor everything that is posted and even harder to for users to keep track of what information is accurate. As a result, Facebook may as well be renamed The Fake News Network. Unlike in the United States where people find information through Google or fact-checking sites, in developing countries like Myanmar, Facebook sets up its own satellites and offers data plans which only allow users to access Facebook. The monopolization of Facebook as an information-sharing source has led to the dissemination of, not only inaccurate, but also hateful rhetoric against the Rohingya people.

The Rohingya people are a majority Muslim group living in the Rakhine area of Myanmar, who are being persecuted for their religion by the government of Myanmar. More than half of the Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes to neighboring Bangladesh and their situation is only becoming more dire. The United Nations says that what is happening to this minority group is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Despite this, the government of Myanmar, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, refuses to even acknowledge the existence of this genocide much less to end it.

The government has taken to Facebook as a means of increasing the already strained tensions between the ethnic groups in Myanmar by promoting propaganda against the Rohingya. A spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi continuously posts propaganda on behalf of the government, such as images of the Rohingya burning their own houses down in order to shift the blame from Myanmar’s army. Even when these posts are proven to be false, Facebook does not take them down. For the people of Myanmar who have few means to verify this information, questioning that which the government posts remains difficult.

Still, the attempts by the government to promote falsehoods are not as blatant as those efforts of many of its own citizens. Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk from Myanmar, was barred by Buddhist authorities from public preaching because his hateful sermons inspired violence against the Rohingya. Prohibited from taking to the streets, he turned to an even more effective method of disseminating his hateful rhetoric: social media. Posting multiple times every day to cultivate an anti-Muslim smear campaign, Wirathu has accumulated a large following which only increases his influence in what could be called a war of ideology on Facebook. Yet, aside from shutting down Wirathu’s account on a few occasions for brief periods, the corporate social media giant has taken little action to permanently address the problem of Wirathu and other terror-espousing demagogues.

Meanwhile, many working to show the world the horrific acts committed against the Rohingya have seemingly been silenced. Pro-Rohingya activists, both in Myanmar and Western countries, have reported that their posts on Facebook are consistently removed. Any Rohingya people who post about the genocidal acts that are occurring allege that their posts have frequently been deleted and often their accounts have been suspended. Many posts by the Rohingya are alerts of ongoing attacks, meant to warn others around the nation. Meanwhile, other posts subject to removal are simply pictures of military activity in the Rakhine State that most people would not consider graphic or inappropriate for Facebook.

By deleting posts by the Rohingya rather than inaccurate, propaganda posts by the government and uber-nationalists like Wirathu, Facebook seems to be promoting a one sided story to the people of Myanmar. If permitted posts by Facebook are all that the Burmese people see, then Facebook will be responsible for creating more prejudices against this already persecuted population. In addition, Facebook censorship further limits global and domestic awareness of what is actually happening to the Rohingya, thus increasing the likelihood of their imminent extermination.

This problem of censorship in the Rohingya genocide is a result of a few flaws in Facebook’s design. For example, individuals are largely responsible for reporting material that should be deleted. It appears that pro-military individuals in Myanmar have launched a systematic campaign aimed at reporting material displaying violence in the Rakhine State. Thus, Facebook manually goes through more of these posts and deletes them. Further, there is not much consensus within the corporate giant about what sort of posts should be taken down other than posts which clearly promote terrorist activity, support established hate groups, involve self-harm and suicide, or are direct threats against others.

Beyond the established design, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy, explained that the standards change over time and often involve grey areas where people will tend to disagree. This grey area has produced a bias against the Rohingya, as evidenced by Facebook’s removal of pro-Rohingya poems. Additionally, Facebook uses an automatic censorship program which helps delete certain posts. Though Facebook executives are secretive about which program is in use, the decisions made by this program have been shown to discriminate against typically marginalized views, such as is this case of the Rohingya.

Facebook needs to develop clearer community standards which are less subjective and do not systematically silence persecuted perspectives. They need clear algorithms that are explained to the public, fair, and have reasons as to why posts are deleted. Additionally, Facebook needs to monitor for the spread of misinformation, especially when it comes to a place like Myanmar where Facebook is the extent of the internet, and the government itself is publishing falsehoods.

While striking a balance between what should be allowed and what should be deleted is difficult, Facebook needs to consider the power that it has in the dissemination of information and reconsider its conduct of censorship. As of now, it appears that Facebook is censoring the world for the worst and encouraging the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.


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