UN criticises Facebook for its role in spread of hate speech in Myanmar

13 Mar 2018

A Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Image: Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock

UN human rights experts say Facebook helped spread hate speech against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Myanmar has been plagued with conflict in recent times, with more than 600,000 Rohingya people forced to flee across the border to makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Many of those affected have spoken of sexual violence and executions carried out by security forces in the country.

Social media plays a major part

Marzuki Darusman is the chair of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and he spoke at a session of the Human Rights Council on 12 March. He said that social media had played a “determining role” in the events in Myanmar.

He gave further details: “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.”

Yanghee Lee, a UN Myanmar investigator, explained that Facebook played a part in the spread of hate speech in the country. She said that “the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebooks and are really inciting a lot of violence and hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities”.

Lee remarked that Facebook had “turned into a beast”, far removed from how it was intended to be used.

Safety initiatives from Facebook

In response, Facebook said there is “no place for hate speech” on its platform. A spokesperson for the social network informed the BBC that it takes the situation in Myanmar very seriously and has worked with experts in the country to develop “safety resources and counter-speech campaigns”.

Initiatives from Facebook include a dedicated safety page for the country, local community standards and training sessions for community groups across Myanmar.

The UN team carried out a comprehensive analysis of the situation, including 600 interviews with victims of human rights infringements and abuses that were carried out in Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh. The organisation also said the government in Myanmar tried to block efforts to carry out an independent investigation in the country.

Commenting on accusations of ‘fake news’ aimed at them by the government, the UN investigators said: “At the same time, the Myanmar authorities continue to accuse the international media of spreading fake news. They continue to block unmonitored access to the affected areas. We would like to make clear that the quality of our work is not affected by this.

“We have eyewitness accounts that allow us to distill the fake news. We have seen unsettling photographs and satellite images of Rohingya villages flattened to the ground by bulldozers, erasing all remaining traces of the life and community that once was – not to mention destroying possible crime scenes, evidence and landmarks. The way to counter fake news is to respect freedom of information, expression and association.”

A Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Image: Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock

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