Myanmar groups accuse Facebook of failing to curb hate speech

Myanmar rights groups say Facebook (FB) has failed to adequately act against online hate speech that incites violence against the country's Muslim minority.

Phandeeyar, a digital innovation lab, and five other groups wrote an open letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, challenging his contention in a recent interview that the social media platform had effectively combated hate speech targeting the Rohingya community that's being persecuted in western Myanmar.

Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of one of the groups, Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, says Facebook has been a useful tool for people in Myanmar to exercise freedom of expression, but it had failed to effectively enforce rules to make it a safe community for all.

In an interview with Vox, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the issue had "gotten a lot of focus inside the company."

"I remember, one Saturday morning, I got a phone call and we detected that people were trying to spread sensational messages through — it was Facebook Messenger in this case — to each side of the conflict, basically telling the Muslims, 'Hey, there's about to be an uprising of the Buddhists, so make sure that you are armed and go to this place'," Zuckerberg said. "And then the same thing on the other side."

Zuckerberg suggested the messages were halted, saying, "Now, in that case, our systems detect that that's going on. We stop those messages from going through. But this is certainly something that we're paying a lot of attention to."

In an open letter to Zuckerberg sent on Thursday, several Myanmar rights groups said they "were surprised to hear you use this case to praise the effectiveness of your 'systems' in the context of Myanmar."

They added, "Far from being an isolated incident, this case further epitomizes the kind of issues that have been rife on Facebook in Myanmar for more than four years now and the inadequate response of the Facebook team."

The groups cited the lack of a reporting function on Facebook Messenger, which would allow people to flag messages for Facebook staff. They also said Facebook's emergency response was too slow, and said they didn't know of any Burmese-speaking Facebook staff that they or others could have reached out to. Among their other concerns was a lack of transparency about what measures Facebook has taken, according to the letter. 

"If you are serious about making Facebook better, however, we urge you to invest more into moderation -particularly in countries, such as Myanmar, where Facebook has rapidly come to play a dominant role in how information is accessed and communicated," they wrote. 

Rohingya reporters and activists rely on social media and mobile phones to smuggle out news of the situation in Myanmar, CBS News' Adam Yamaguchi reported in a documentary earlier this year.