The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook blocks accounts of Myanmar’s top general, other military leaders

Myanmar's commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, attends an event marking Martyrs' Day in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 19.
Myanmar's commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, attends an event marking Martyrs' Day in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 19. (ANN WANG/Reuters)

SINGAPORE — When Facebook officials heard that a damning U.N. report would again make a link between hate speech on the social media site and atrocities in Myanmar, they knew they had to act, a person familiar with their thinking said.

For the next 24 hours, officials went back and forth on how to respond to the report’s call for Myanmar’s commander in chief — an active Facebook user — to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

Without consulting the Myanmar government, Facebook on Monday removed Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s page from its platform, along with those of other top military brass, and preemptively banned others. The U.N. report “put a deadline on what they were planning on doing anyway,” the person, who was not authorized to talk to the media, added.

In all, Facebook said in a post that it banned 18 accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages. Almost 12 million people followed the accounts. 

The decision was made to “prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” Facebook said. The company said it was preserving data from the deleted accounts and pages. 

Facebook previously removed the pages of nationalist monks and has hired a company to assess the effects of the platform on human rights in Myanmar, also known as Burma. 

Analysis | The big questions for Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s role in Myanmar

Facebook has faced increasing pressure to stem hate speech on its platform, which has wide reach in Myanmar. The three-person U.N. fact-finding mission, which began working last year to gather evidence of crimes by the military, singled out Facebook’s role as a tool for spreading hate speech.

“Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet,” the report said. “Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective.”

The U.N. team is set to present a fuller report on Sept. 18.

Shortly after the preliminary report was made public, Min Aung Hlaing’s page became inaccessible. Another Facebook account for him surfaced a few hours later — only to be taken down.

The general has been a prolific user of Facebook in recent years, using the platform to document his travels and post updates on military affairs. The platform has also allowed the Myanmar military to provide a counternarrative to the mounting evidence of crimes committed against the Rohingya.

The U.N. team has collected numerous Facebook posts from Myanmar military accounts, according to a person briefed on the group’s work who was not authorized to talk to the media. Observers have said that a body of evidence gleaned from the platform could be used to support an investigation of genocide or crimes against humanity.

Facebook also said Monday that it discovered and removed 46 pages and 12 accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

“During a recent investigation, we discovered that they used seemingly independent news and opinion Pages to covertly push the messages of the Myanmar military,” the company said.

A spokeswoman for the company declined to provide further details on those pages and accounts, citing ongoing work to identify any other related activity. Naming the pages, she said, could hamper these efforts.

Facebook turns to artificial intelligence to fight hate and misinformation in Myanmar

A spokesman for the military did not respond to a request for comment. Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s civilian government, said it was “questionable” that Facebook’s actions occurred on the same day as the release of the U.N. report, which his government rejects. Myanmar has put in a query to Facebook officials, he added.

Naing Swe Oo, director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a military-backed think tank whose Facebook page remained active Monday evening, condemned Facebook’s actions.

“Taking down the Facebook pages of Tatmadaw leaders and others [the same day as the U.N. report] is unfair, one-side and coordinated,” he said, using Myanmar’s name for its military.

Facebook is wildly popular in Myanmar, where Internet connectivity has exploded in the past six years after the previous military-linked government ended a state-run monopoly on telecommunications that had keep the Southeast Asian country largely offline. In 2011, Myanmar had 1.3 million cellphone subscribers , and Internet penetration was below 1 percent, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a U.N. agency.

The liberalization of the telecom sector in 2014 sent the price of SIM cards crashing from more than $1,000 to just a few dollars. Internet penetration has risen to about 25 percent and cellphone penetration to about 90 percent, according to the ITU. There are about 18 million Facebook users in the country, the company said.

For years, Facebook relied heavily on a network of civil society organizations that flagged content for review. The system drew criticism from those involved, who said it was too slow, could not be sufficiently scaled up and outsourced work that should have been done by the company.

Facebook was also long resistant to disclosing the number of Myanmar-language speakers it had monitoring content for possible violations of the company’s community standards. This month, the company announced that it was formalizing the escalation channel and said it had more than 60 Myanmar-language experts reviewing content as of June.

Shibani Mahtani in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Wai Moe in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report. 

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