Could Facebook have helped stop the hate speech in Myanmar?

Of all the calculations recently published on Facebook -from its role in electoral interference to the exposure of user data-, the one that employees in Menlo Park, California lost while sleeping was the accusation that they facilitated the cleaning ethnicity in Myanmar.

UN The investigators accused Facebook of playing a "determining role" in the violence that drove almost 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas from the country and killed at least 6,700 people in the first month. How accurate, and to what extent, the giant social networks affected Myanmar's campaign of rape, arson and murder remains impossible to quantify, given the absence of available data.

A Facebook spokesperson told TIME by email that "no place for hate speech" on his platform. But the company does not have an office in Myanmar or Burmese staff. The monitors say it can take days or even weeks to remove the marked content. In a recent interview with Vox, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the potential of the platform to cause "real world damage" in Myanmar, but noted that when two chain inflammatory messages circulated in Facebook's Messenger application in September past, "our systems detected them" and "stopped". those messages are transmitted. "

Myanmar civil society groups resisted the suggestion that this showed the effectiveness of Facebook, in an open letter shared online on Thursday, six organizations criticized what they called the" inadequate response "routinely from the They were the ones who reported the messages, which they nevertheless allowed to broadcast for days and which they said "caused widespread fear and at least three violent incidents."

"This case exemplifies the opposite of effective moderation: reveals an excess of confidence in third parties, lack of an adequate mechanism for escalation of emergency, reluctance to involve local stakeholders in systemic solutions and lack of transparency, "said six groups in one statement on Thursday. "The risk of Facebook content triggering open violence is possibly now higher than in Myanmar, "they said.

Some are skeptical about the extent of Facebook's influence, citing pogroms prior to the existence of the platform and other channels, including the state – backed television and newspapers – used to legitimize the abuse of the 1.1 million Rohingya estimated in the country. Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, tells TIME that "violence against the Rohingya would have happened with or without Facebook," adding that this does not absolve the company of the need to combat hate speech metastasizing in its platform.

However, people working in Southeast Asia have long warned about the potential of the platform to bademble information, amplify ethnic tensions and even incite violence. Facebook reached the former pariah state at the same time as the Internet and smartphones. The ubiquity of Facebook in Myanmar is not only part of the problem, it is also emblematic of what can go wrong when the world's largest social network also serves as a unique forum for political discourse, news and commerce.

"In Myanmar, Facebook serves more than a space for social activity and likes cat videos, even the president used the platform to announce his resignation," says a Yangon digital badyst who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the problem. The omnipresence of Facebook in Myanmar only compares with its monopolizing influence; A 2017 survey found that 73% of people trust the site for news, and according to some accounts, 85% of the country's Internet traffic flows through the network.

Read more: The Exodus of Rohingya? Be Aung San Suu Kyi Fall From Grace?

In many ways, Myanmar embodies the changing narrative on Facebook: once perceived as a democratizing force, and praised during the Arab Spring as a decentralized platform of "people" that could unify a populace to help topple the tyrants, since then he has been criticized for being vulnerable to exploitation by corrupt and despotic regimes. Practically overnight, the social media giant provided a way to accelerate the spread of incendiary conspiracies and anti-Muslim virulence that Buddhist nationalists previously disseminated through pamphlets or CDs.

Scrolling on Facebook in Myanmar often reveals a toxic mix of patriotic fervor and ethnic vilification. Racial epithets, dehumanizing language, photos of corpses, politically charged drawings and fake newspaper articles are shared not only by hard-line factions, but also by government officials, all of which foster the impression of consensus and eclipse the space for more moderate views . Monitoring groups have said that most hateful and dangerous discourse is directed at Muslims, often portraying the minority as an existential threat to the Buddhist majority, calling for actions such as boycotts, harbadment and even deadly violence.

"Hate speech tends to increase at politically sensitive times, such as during elections or conflicts," says the Yangon badyst.

Digital researcher Raymond Serrato found evidence of such outbreaks coinciding with the latest military operations against the Rohingya. A Facebook group badociated with a Buddhist nationalist organization known as Ma Ba Tha seems to have started publishing in June 2016, and accelerated its activity the following October when an insurgent ambush triggered brutal army reprisals. Before a second wave of attacks in August 2017, the number of messages exploded again with a 200% increase in interactions, according to Serrato. Scraping data from a military Facebook page revealed similar timed activity peaks.

"It shows that there was a concerted effort to influence the narrative of the conflict by the military and the Buddhist nationalists," says Serrato.

While Facebook does not manufacture the message, it cures the content and determines what users see on their news channels. Analysts say that this system reinforces echo cameras and has allowed misinformation to go viral in an environment where digital and news literacy is low. Many people in Myanmar, where until recently Internet penetration was among the lowest in the world, pay for smartphones come preloaded with Facebook accounts and favorite pages.

"This is not a neutral platform, there are manipulators and counterfeiters on Facebook, which are under scrutiny in the United Kingdom and the United States, and should be in Myanmar," says Robert Huish, badociate professor of Development Studies International at Dalhousie University. He added that "genocides require bombings of disinformation to generate hatred" and that Facebook offers a powerful megaphone.

"The speed with which ultra-radical messages spread through Myanmar via Facebook was alarming," says Huish, "and combined with a newly connected population created a very unique scenario with devastating consequences."

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