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Facebook is dealing with problems in Asia, says Zuckerberg

CEO responds to concerns over Myanmar hate speech and India election

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10.   © AP

TOKYO -- Mark Zuckerberg's five-hour testimony to Congress on Tuesday covered a wide range of topics including regulation, privacy and Russian meddling in U.S. elections. The Facebook chief executive also made some significant remarks on issues in Asia, where its service is widely used but is now facing greater scrutiny from local regulators and civil rights groups over its handling of user data. Here is a synopsis of what he said.

On allegations that Facebook is spreading hate speech in Myanmar

"We are working on this."

Civil society groups in Myanmar have criticized Zuckerberg for not putting enough effort into removing hate speech, particularly against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

In his testimony, Zuckerberg said Facebook is taking three steps to tackle the problem: hiring dozens of Burmese "language reviewers" to identify hate speech, working with civil society to identify figures spreading hate speech "so we can take down their accounts, rather than specific pieces of content," and making "specific product changes" in Myanmar.

Although he did not elaborate on what the changes are, Zuckerberg said the company may tweak the platform in other countries, "which may have similar issues."

On upcoming elections, including in India and Pakistan

"We want to do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections."

Facebook's role in influencing elections has come under intense scrutiny after it admitted that up to 87 million users may have had their data improperly used by Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company with ties to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Now governments across Asia are raising their own concerns ahead of key elections.

"One of my greatest regrets in running the company is that we were slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016," Zuckerberg said.

"2018 is an incredibly important year for elections," he added, "not just with U.S. midterms, but around the world there are important elections in India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and in Hungary." He pledged to "do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections." 

Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica data analyst-turned-whistleblower, recently tweeted that  SCL, Cambridge Analytica's parent company, had been involved in elections in India. In the run-up to the 2019 Indian general election where Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks his second term, the South Asian country has been conducting a series of state elections, including in key states of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.       

While the testimony gave some clarity on Facebook's practices and commitments in the region, it is unlikely that the political pressure on the company will ease anytime soon. Just hours before the hearing, human rights activists and media groups in Vietnam released an open letter accusing Facebook of coordinating with authorities in that country to suppress opposition voices.

With 828 million monthly active users, Asia accounts for more than a third of Facebook's user base and is one of the company's fastest-growing markets. How Zuckerberg handles the situation in the region may be key to Facebook's future.

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