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Facebook to remove posts sparking violence in emerging Asia

Platform reckons with role in sectarian attacks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Facebook posts fueled sectarian tensions in Sri Lanka that erupted into anti-Muslim violence in March, forcing the country to declare a state of emergency.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Facebook will start taking down posts with misinformation that could incite violence in emerging countries, the company said on Wednesday, addressing criticism of its slow response to potentially dangerous content.

The policy will be implemented in the coming months in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where rumors circulated on the American social media platform have been said to contribute to deadly sectarian violence.

Buddhist attacks on minority Muslims, fueled by Facebook posts that heightened tensions, spurred Sri Lanka to declare a state of emergency in March. A United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar said that month that Facebook had played a "determining role" in violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Facebook's terms of service allow it to remove "content that encourages real-world harm." In the U.S. and other developed countries, the company uses artificial intelligence and human moderators to spot problematic posts. It has been slower to do so in emerging markets, where language and other differences make the task harder.

Facebook said it plans to partner with local organizations that will flag apparent misinformation for deletion. A trial run in Sri Lanka led to the removal of posts accusing Muslims of poisoning food intended for Buddhists, according to the company.

But the strategy has limits. Areas vulnerable to the spread of fake news have little in the way of independent media or other organizations with the requisite fact-checking capabilities. Predicting which posts may cause violence can be difficult as well.

With more than 2 billion users, Facebook has become a major news source for much of the world. The platform has yet to find a satisfactory balance between freedom of expression and social responsibility.

Social media can be powerful tools for change, as seen with their role in facilitating the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in the Middle East. But Facebook has also come in for heavy criticism for providing Russia with a channel through which to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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