April 2018


According to the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, Facebook has become a powerful vehicle for spreading anti-Rohingya views that lead to violence. Alan Davis, an analyst who recently led a two-year study of hate speech in Burma told the British newspaper the Guardian that he noticed Burmese posts on Facebook becoming “more organized and odious, and more militarized” in the months leading up to the 2017 mass expulsions.  For example, his researchers encountered “fake news” stating that “mosques in Yangon are stockpiling weapons in an attempt to blow up various Buddhist pagodas.” Signs denoting “Muslim-free” zones were shared more than 11,000 times. Facebook pages also frequently called Rohingya the derogatory term “kalars” and “Bengali terrorists.”


With world-wide scrutiny of Facebook increasing, there is now an opportunity to demand more oversight over its operations in Burma. Without damaging free speech protections, Facebook must show much greater involvement and responsibility.


Earlier on Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington said that Mr. Zuckerberg would testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 11 about the company’s handling of sensitive user data. Facebook is also facing new data privacy rules that will take effect in the European Union next month.


But lawmakers must also ask Mr. Zuckerberg about Facebook’s impact in Myanmar. Many Rohingya and democracy activists (such as Yan Myo Thein) have found their pages are regularly taken down, while extremists like U Wirathu (and his many followers) evade control. To respond to hate speech, Facebook usually hires third-party fact-checkers, but with a weak civil society intimidated by the government and military, and many Burmese influenced by anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim views, it does not appear the system is working. Even BBC and Voice of America have had staff in their Burmese language media that have spread negative or hateful views.


Equally troubling, Mr. Zuckerberg has made unhelpful public statements that seem to equate all sides in the Rohingya crisis. But the situation in Burma is a genocide, not an inter-ethnic conflict. The sides are not equally to blame.

Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

PDF icon Download PDF (37.24 KB)