Facebook fails to detect hate speech against Rohingya, report claims

22 Mar 2022

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Global Witness said Facebook approved ads containing hate speech against the Rohingya people and whistleblower Frances Haugen has called on Ireland to act.

A new report claims that Facebook’s ability to detect Burmese language hate speech is “abysmally poor”, years after the company admitted its platform had played a role in inciting violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population.

Human rights NGO Global Witness said it submitted eight paid ads in Burmese to be approved by Facebook, all of which contained forms of violent and “dehumanising” speech against the Rohingya. Some called for the killing of Rohingya people while others called for exclusion or segregation.

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“In addition to falling within Facebook’s definition of hate speech, most of the ads would have breached international law had they been published,” Global Witness said in a report on 20 March.

The NGO said that all eight of the ads were approved by Facebook for publication. The ads were deleted by Global Witness before they could be published, once Facebook had granted approval.

It said it shared the findings with Facebook to allow the company to comment, but did not get a response.

“We’re not suggesting that paid-for content is the primary means by which hate speech is spread in Myanmar,” Global Witness said. “Instead, we used the submission of adverts as a means of testing Facebook’s ability to detect hate speech without ourselves posting hate speech.”

The international NGO said that Facebook and other social media platforms should treat the spread of hate and violent speech “with the utmost urgency”. It called for these platforms to publish the integrity and security systems they have in each country “making sure that people in all countries and languages are sufficiently protected”.

Ireland’s role

After the US declared this week that violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population constitutes genocide, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said the platform’s parent company, Meta, “must be held accountable” for its “negligence” in this area.

In the former Facebook product manager’s complaints to the US Securities and Exchange Commission late last year, she alleged the social media company doesn’t take sufficient action regarding hate speech on its platform, and that it “relegates international users” with its language capabilities and “promotes global division and ethnic violence”.

Haugen specifically referenced Facebook’s role in Myanmar at a Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting on online disinformation and media literacy last month, where she urged Ireland to lead by example when holding tech companies to account.

“Ireland is the headquarters of many Big Tech platforms in the EU where global decisions are made,” she tweeted yesterday (21 March). “Irish citizens would never stand for such human rights abuses committed by companies on their soil.”

She added that she supports the “brave Rohingya young people” who brought a complaint to the OECD National Contact Point in Ireland regarding hate speech on Facebook.

At a briefing with Irish politicians in Leinster House today (22 March), Haugen also highlighted the complaint made by 16 Rohingya youths and women.

Global Witness said the Irish National Contact Point had three months to decide whether to take the Rohingya case forward, but that the deadline passed on 20 March.

“Our investigation shows how Facebook hasn’t cleaned up its act, at least for paid-for content, and is still hugely vulnerable to illegal Burmese hate speech,” the NGO said. “The Irish National Contact Point should take up the case.”

Both Global Witness and Haugen have spoken in favour of the Digital Services Act (DSA), Europe’s attempt hold tech giants accountable for content on their platforms.

Haugen previously said the DSA focuses on “risk assessments”, which would make platforms like Facebook disclose risks associated with their business practices and share what their risk mitigations will be, while listening to concerns from NGOs and governments.

Dozens of Rohingya refugees in the UK and US have taken legal action against Facebook for negligence in allowing hate speech to spread, demanding $150bn in compensation.

Updated, 2.15pm, 22 March 2022: This article was updated to include details of Frances Haugen’s meeting with Irish politicians today.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com