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Facebook wages uphill battle against hate speech in Myanmar

Anti-Rohingya posts still plague the platform as language barrier hampers early detection

Many people in Myanmar use Facebook as an information source.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Facebook is struggling to control hate speech on its namesake platform in Myanmar, a particularly worrying issue given the sway held by social media over the public there.

The violence against the Southeast Asian nation's Rohingya ethnic minority escalated last August, drawing much international attention. With tensions fueled by anti-Rohingya hate speech on social media, the U.S. technology giant has stepped up efforts to monitor and block such posts.

"In the second quarter of 2018, we proactively identified about 52% of the content we removed for hate speech in Myanmar," up from 13% in the final quarter of 2017, Facebook said Wednesday.

But hate speech persists on the platform. As of Thursday, the Buddhist Defense League's page still contained multiple posts that could fan the flames. It called Rohingya terrorists and blamed civilian deaths on them, for instance.

With 48,000-plus followers, the page posts images of alleged atrocities.


A Facebook post depicting the Rohingya in a negative light. The Buddhist Defense League page has more than 48,000 followers. (Photo by Toyoki Nakanishi)

"The ethnic violence in Myanmar is horrific and we have been too slow to prevent misinformation and hate on Facebook," the company said in its Wednesday statement. One reason is that it is intended to be an open platform for people to share all kinds of content. Hate speech, which could incite riots or cause other harm, is off-limits. But deciding what crosses the line is difficult. Even trickier is programming machines to do the job.

Then there is the language barrier, since non-English hate speech takes longer to detect. Facebook says it will hire more speakers of the local language and work with third parties to strengthen its efforts.

Artificial intelligence will eventually catch the bulk of the problematic posts, a company official predicted. But no concrete measures are in sight yet.

Facebook is an information source for many people in Myanmar, where mobile phones have penetrated more than 90% of the market and the media industry is underdeveloped.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg maintains that Facebook is a technology business and not a media outlet. But the platform has great influence over people's behavior.

Hate speech on Facebook is also said to have spurred conflicts in Sri Lanka and India, where the company plans to take an approach similar to that in Myanmar.

As Facebook works to behave in a more responsible manner befitting its global reach, including in emerging Asia, the company expects its operating margin to shrink over a time frame of more than two years.

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