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Concern Is High Over Facebook's Role In Fanning Violence In Myanmar


We've been chasing down the story behind a question to Mark Zuckerberg. The founder of Facebook was questioned by Congress this spring. Most attention focused on Facebook sharing personal data and Facebook being used to spread disinformation. Less-noticed was a question about Facebook's role in violence in Myanmar. Zuckerberg's answer led NPR's Anthony Kuhn to visit Myanmar in search of a fuller answer.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a Senate hearing in April, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about Myanmar.



PATRICK LEAHY: Recently, U.N. investigators blamed Facebook for playing a role in inciting possible genocide in Myanmar, and there has been genocide there.

KUHN: Ethnic conflict and military anti-insurgent operations have sent an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing into Bangladesh. Leahy was referring to accusations that Facebook helped fan the flames by providing a platform for hate speech. Zuckerberg acknowledged that he's aware of those charges.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, what's happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to do more.


LEAHY: We all agree with that.


KUHN: To understand how people see Facebook here, I came to Phandeeyar, a Yangon-based tech hub that's been active in combating hate speech online.

THANT SIN: My name is Thant Sin, and I am a digital rights activist from Myanmar.

KUHN: He says that Myanmar has undergone a digital revolution. In just a few short years, some 90 percent of the population of Myanmar has gained access to the Internet, mostly through their mobile phones. The country has some 27 million Facebook accounts for a population of about 53 million.

THANT SIN: People think Facebook is the Internet. It comes pre-installed on the phone that they buy. And three years is very short time to get accustomed to nature of the Internet, and we're falling really behind on digital literacy.

KUHN: Thant Sin says that includes teaching people how to protect their personal information, how to control what information they see online and how to keep online discussions free of hate speech. But the problem is not just with users. Activists at Phandeeyar have told Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter that Facebook must strengthen its moderation of Burmese-language content. Phandeeyar's CEO, Jes Petersen, notes that in Germany, for example, where the government strictly regulates content to prevent hate speech, Facebook has around 1,200 moderators.

JES PETERSEN: If they were to have the same user-to-moderator ratio, for Myanmar, they would need to deploy more than 700 people speaking and reading in Myanmar.

KUHN: At the hearing in April, Zuckerberg pledged to deploy dozens of Burmese-language moderators. Facebook also uses artificial intelligence to identify hate speech, but activists say it often doesn't work. Jes Petersen says Phandeeyar is also pressing Facebook to be more transparent about its operations.

PETERSEN: How much bad content are you removing? How many reports are you getting? How many accounts are you closing down? We're not necessarily asking them to disclose sensitive information. We would just really like to see some numbers.

KUHN: Facebook said nobody was available to answer questions for this report. Earlier this year, Facebook shut down the account of a monk named U Wirathu, the leader of a Buddhist nationalist movement. He's been accused of using Facebook posts to incite violence against Muslims. Activists say Facebook should have taken action years ago. Internet entrepreneur Hla Hla Win says Facebook is simply not doing enough to address hate speech.

HLA HLA WIN: Facebook's making zillions of dollar from Myanmar community. They can do a lot better than that. Be more responsible about it.

KUHN: The activists caution that they're not trying to kick Facebook out of Myanmar. They just want it to solve its problems and realize its potential as a force for good. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.