Facebook flounders in the fight against hate speech in Myanmar

16 Aug 2018

A Rohingya child at a Bangladeshi refugee camp. Image: Zakeria Embi/Shutterstock

Facebook is struggling to battle the hate speech epidemic in Myanmar.

In April of this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg informed US lawmakers that the company was hiring more content reviewers who speak Burmese to help with the deluge of hate speech posted in Myanmar.

Since around 2013, citizens in Myanmar have used Facebook to promote hatred of Muslims, the Rohingya in particular. As the user base in the country has grown to 18m, hate speech has also flourished on the platform.

Hate speech against the Rohingya is still ongoing

A new investigation from Reuters and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law shows more than 1,000 examples of posts targeting the Muslim population of Myanmar. The materials had been live on the platform for as long as six years in some instances before they were brought to the attention of Facebook last week.

One user posted an advertisement for Rohingya-style food and said: “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews, damn kalars!” ‘Kalar’ is a pejorative term for the Rohingya. This post was on Facebook in December 2013.

Another post included an article from an army-controlled publication about attacks by Rohingya militants on police stations. The post referred to the Rohingya as “non-human kalar dogs”. A separate user wrote that Rohingya refugees in Indonesia should be set alight “so that they can meet Allah faster”.

Facebook did not act quickly enough

Reuters said that in 2015, there were only two people at Facebook who spoke Burmese. Prior to this, most of the people reviewing this content were English speakers. The company also does not have a single staff member in Myanmar. Instead, reviewers monitor the content through an operation in Kuala Lumpur, which Accenture manages. Facebook’s systems also have trouble interpreting Burmese text.

The Kuala Lumpur project is dubbed ‘Honey Badger’. As of June, there were around 60 people reviewing reports from the 18m users in Myanmar. A former employee of Facebook said there were three full-time Burmese speakers in the Dublin office in April.

A Facebook official said that it was “impossible to know” how many Burmese speakers the company has on the job, but he added that it was “not enough”. A tech entrepreneur who worked in Myanmar, David Madden, said different people warned the company “so many times”.

Myanmar in turmoil

Facebook’s director of Asia-Pacific policy, Mia Garlick, told Reuters: “We were too slow to respond to the concerns raised by civil society, academics and other groups in Myanmar. We don’t want Facebook to be used to spread hatred and incite violence. This is true around the world, but it is especially true in Myanmar where our services can be used to amplify hate or exacerbate harm against the Rohingya.”

The UN has accused the military in Myanmar of conducting mass rape, arson and ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting the Rohingya, which the government denies. Twitter has also seen similar hate speech, albeit not at Facebook’s scale.

Facebook said it will add 40 more Myanmar language experts by the end of the year.

A Rohingya child at a Bangladeshi refugee camp. Image: Zakeria Embi/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects