The Irrawaddy

Facebook Slow to React to Violence, Hate Speech in Myanmar

When mass killings or religious strife take place in Myanmar, the conflict spreads to social media, leading to yet more slaughter on the ground.

There is no doubt that the next major conflict in Myanmar will start on social media or in cyberspace. But who will take the blame, and how can the problem be resolved?

Facebook has definitely played a role in Myanmar’s ethnic and racial conflicts, especially in northern Rakhine State. Who will stop those who abuse and misuse the platform is an open question, and there is no clear answer.

Recently, Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, told reporters that social media had played a “determining role” in Myanmar.

“It has…substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. 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 said.

A few weeks ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked about his company’s role in the Rakhine crisis during an appearance before a US Senate panel.

“What’s happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to do more,” he replied.

Facebook is now hiring “dozens” more Burmese-language content reviewers to look for hate speech. It is also working with civil society to identify “specific hate figures” who should be banned, and with product teams to come up with new technical solutions to the problem. A number of civic organizations and human rights groups in Myanmar shared a detailed presentation with US lawmakers on how the social media platform helped spread hate speech in the country. But those trying to tackle the problem face a number of major challenges.

In Myanmar there is an ongoing battle between two fonts: Zawgyi and Unicode. A post written on Facebook in Burmese will almost certainly be written in Zawgyi.

Some smartphones manufacturers such as Samsung use both fonts due to market demand. It is no doubt a nightmare for developers and Facebook reviewers to reconcile this.

Unicode should be the official font, yet Zawgyi remains dominant among internet users. As long as this is not reconciled, it will remain an issue for Myanmar, whose people are rapidly adopting Facebook, smartphones and the internet. Will the government have to intervene?

Second, during Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before US lawmakers, there was no intelligent Q & A about allegations that Myanmar army officers trained by Russia were involved in spreading the rumors, hate speech and fake news. Nor were there any questions about terrorists and campaign groups that sided with ARSA to spread fake videos and news.

Indeed, regarding Russia and Myanmar, military relations between Moscow and Naypyitaw have gone from strength to strength for the past several years. More than 4,000 Myanmar officers studied in Russia between 1993 and 2013, more than from any other Southeast Asian country. They studied aviation, nuclear technology and cyber warfare.

About 600 military personnel from Myanmar are studying at Russia’s higher military education institutions right now.

Cyber warfare is not new in Myanmar.

In the past, two leading media websites operating in self-exile came under attack several times. A three-year investigation by Swedish cyber security firm Unleash Research Labs identified the army as a key player in a string of attacks against the websites of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and The Irrawaddy dating back to 2012.

Exiled media outlets covering Myanmar are no strangers to cyber attacks. Coordinated assaults on DVB and The Irrawaddy have taken place during most major political events, including the general election in November 2010. The military was also found to be behind a series of cyber attacks on pro-democracy media outlets around the time of the historic 2015 elections and was reported to have ties to hackers who targeted websites belonging to the Thai government.

When violence erupted in northern Rakhine State last year, The Irrawaddy found more than a dozen identical fake social media pages with thousands of followers. Facebook took the pages down, but only weeks after being notified.

Since Myanmar started opening up in 2011, many citizens have become glued to social media. U Ye Htut, the minister of information under the previous government, was known as the “Minister of Facebook” because of the considerable time he spent on the platform sharing news and comments and attacking the administration’s critics. Many government officials with accounts have used them to spread hate speech and violent threats.

Well-connected tycoons and other well-known individuals have also set up several social media teams to attack opponents and rivals or spread false news and rumors to counter bad press.

Ultranationalist monk U Wirathu used his Facebook page to launch attacks on Muslims and incite hate. The page was allowed to keep running for months, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers. Where were Facebook’s monitors then?

The Myanmar military’s psychological warfare department is believed to have hundreds of trained officers running multiple Facebook accounts posting sexy pictures and using female names to attract followers and then spread fake news whenever the country faces a racial or religious crisis.

Likewise, people and groups sympathetic to ARSA, terrorists, ethnic armed groups and nationalist extremists have also produced and shared fake news and inflammatory cartoons to incite more violence or gain international support.

The extensive misuse of social media platforms has been happening for years, but counteraction has been slow in coming. Facebook can no longer turn a blind eye to the misuse of its own network. Otherwise, it will be accused of being complicit in Myanmar’s ongoing crisis.