Facebook logo embedded in a map of Myanmar. Image: Twitter

There’s a word that appears 289 times in the 444-page UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) Report on Myanmar released earlier this month: Facebook.

The majority of Facebook mentions in the report – a damning indictment that suggests Myanmar’s military leaders should be prosecuted for genocide for crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims – were sources for speeches, photographs and statements posted by top soldiers, government officials and other public figures.

The UN report effectively showed how materials shared publicly over social media can be used for legal case-building, including in any future international justice initiatives pursued against Myanmar’s military and other leaders for alleged genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Facebook, which has come under widespread criticism for not better monitoring it’s platforms for incendiary Burmese language materials that may have contributed to stoking recent violence in Myanmar, said in a statement it is now willing to comply with requests for posts that could be used as evidence in future court proceedings.

Last year an International Criminal Court arrest warrant was issued for the first time based on evidence obtained entirely from the social media site, namely for an alleged commander within the Al-Saiqa Brigade in Libya who was accused of involvement in 33 murders in Benghazi and surrounding areas in June 2016 and July 2017.

Myanmar’s military commanders proven to be involved in atrocities against the Rohingya could be next. The UN Fact-Finding Mission report singled out Facebook as a key distribution platform for hate speech, including over official channels, that may have spurred some of the violence that drove over 700,000 Rohingya across Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh.

A Rohingya refugee woman is seen at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters/ Mohammad Ponir Hossain

“Facebook, as we have detailed in our findings, is a prominent social media platform in Myanmar and thus has been used widely to disseminate hate speech,” FFM member Chris Sidoti told Asia Times. “It’s understandable given the climate of hate speech and propaganda that the Myanmar people would feel a certain level of fear of the Rohingya.

“This fear had no basis in history or fact or logic, but it takes hold of people when subjected to level of hate speech and propaganda experienced in Myanmar. The Rohingya have a history of being one of the most peaceful ethnic minorities in Myanmar,” Sidoti said.

In a press conference following the release of the report, FFM member Radhika Coomeraswamy noted that atrocities had been “allowed to take place without much protest in Myanmar”, and that there were “a whole host of issues with regard to social media and hate speech.”

Coomeraswamy questioned whether it is wise to “rely on self-regulation with regard to free speech with [social media] organizations, [or if there is] a need for some form of regulation.”

The US-based social media giant has drawn huge flak for its failure to tackle hate speech in Myanmar and elsewhere. The company has been accused of inaction and failing to heed warnings – dating as far back as 2013 in Myanmar’s context – about the potential for its platform’s misuse in politically volatile new markets.

Media experts say that untapped markets such as Myanmar were seized on by Facebook with little due diligence as an opportunity to add millions of new users virtually overnight, significantly at a time the recently publicly listed company was pursuing fast growth to meet market expectations and maintain its high share value.

A Rohingya man looks at Facebook on his cell phone at a makeshift refugee camp after crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh, near Cox’s Bazar’s Palangkhali, September 8, 2017. Photo: Nurphoto via AFP/ Ahmed Salahuddin

This was particularly crucial as Facebook’s primary markets showed worrying signs of maturation and stagnation: Earlier this year, the company announced a drop-off of three million active daily users in Europe, from 282 million down to 279 million in this year’s first quarter.

Facebook’s most valuable users are based in the US and Canada, where the average user was worth $25.91 in revenue per month in the first quarter, followed next on the same metric by those in European markets.

A greenfield market like Myanmar was rare in this day and age of media saturation: when company executives heard there was a country where 50 million-odd people were finally able to access mobile phones, it was no doubt viewed as a big opportunity to rapidly boost its user base.

It’s the data that makes a country valuable to advertisers seeking to target key demographics and geographies: in places like Myanmar, where much of the advertising on the platform takes place through informal channels and not over the platform itself, the country wasn’t likely viewed as a particularly high-yield opportunity.

But Myanmar has arguably cost the company in reputational damage more than it earned through millions of new users.

In the wake of Facebook’s announcement last month that 46 pages and 12 individual accounts linked to the Myanmar military were banned because they were involved in a covert military propaganda campaign, company representatives have said that an internal investigation into the situation is ongoing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a 2015 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam

Critics, however, say there are still many major questions the company needs to answer urgently if it hopes to move over from the wrong to right side of history in Myanmar.

That covert influence campaigns were being hosted on the platform is no doubt a cause for concern, and it’s important that Facebook makes public disclosures on the full scale and reach of this false content and its possible role in recent violence in Myanmar.

All of the now banned pages, both covert and overt, were followed by 12 million people — representing a full two-thirds of Myanmar’s 18 million users, according to Facebook’s own estimates.

At present, the influence of the covert pages can only be guessed at: the two official pages for Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had a combined following of about 4.1 million. Of the named overt accounts that were banned, only the military-linked Myawady News had a substantial audience.

Facebook-disseminated fake news and influence campaigns could have potentially been pushed to millions of smartphones — or it could have only been hundreds.

Until Facebook releases hard figures, it is impossible to know just how many people were inadvertently consuming and possibly responding to the military’s agitprop, including against the Rohingya and civilian National League for Democracy-led government.

Nor is it clear if covert material was amplified through the company’s paid boost model, and if so, whether specific demographics or geographies were targeted. If they were, it would also raise the question of how much Facebook profited from disseminating official and other sources of ethnically-tinged hate speech.

A woman at a rally of Myanmar nationalists to show support for government and military actions against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in Yangon, September 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Similarly, there is the matter of whether Facebook’s algorithms (which are constantly being tweaked, with little to no transparency) might have inadvertently given a greater audience to material that sought to redirect blame for unrest away from the military and push the notion that the Rohingya are not a legitimate ethnicity.

Official propaganda is nothing new, in Myanmar or elsewhere. However, citizens know roughly what they’re getting when they pick up a state-run daily or tune in to a military-run channel or buy a compendium of True News issued by Myanmar’s Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare.

That Facebook was used to host and distribute disguised agenda-driven material on a platform many Myanmar users equate with the internet is another prospect entirely.

While the phenomenon is not unique to Myanmar, to be sure, it has all taken place at a time when ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has gone largely unchallenged and the international media has been effectively turned into public enemy number one in the eyes of many Myanmar citizens.

In a major report on cyber influence campaigns globally released late last year by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, called ‘Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation’, Myanmar was not named as one of the 28 countries found to be engaged in the practice.

That will almost certainly change the next time the report is issued. The Oxford ComProp group said that a range of government agencies and political parties worldwide are “exploiting social media platforms to spread junk news and disinformation, exercise censorship and control, and undermine trust in the media, public institutions, and science.”

Buddhist monks and others protest against Rohingya Muslims in Yangon on February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun

Last year, the Omidyar Network and the Democracy fund released a report which highlighted the ability of social media to potentially undermine democratic institutions, citing “distinct threats for public dialogue by flooding the public square with multiple, competing realities and exacerbating the lack of agreement about what constitutes truth, facts, and evidence.”

“The use of fake accounts and disinformation on social media is often used to manipulate public opinion by giving the illusion of popularity or opposition to an idea. This manufacturing of consensus can result in a bandwagon effect wherein people support an idea or political power because they fear being marginalized,” Samuel Woolley, director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at the Institute for the Future, told Asia Times.

He said that abuse of the digital sphere can lead to “a public that is more confused, more polarized and more extreme when it comes to perceptions of politics and public life”.

The damage caused by this manipulation of Myanmar’s online sphere — where over 40% of people consider Facebook a primary news source, according to an industry survey, and over 85% of in-country browsing takes place through the platform, telecom industry sources say— is currently impossible to estimate.

Facebook now has around 60 Burmese-speaking staff members, a number the company aims to boost to 100 by year’s end. However, the new hires are almost exclusively content monitors, not digital forensics or computational propaganda experts, raising questions of whether the platform will remain vulnerable to manipulation.

Young men browse their Facebook wall on their smartphones as they sit in a street in Yangon. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

With Myanmar’s next elections slated for 2020, it is important for the country’s battered democracy that internet users have the tools to critically assess online information, including over Facebook, in what is expected to be a heated and potentially xenophobic campaign season.

While agenda-driven media has always been a threat to the public discourse, the potential for abuse of Facebook — and other digital platforms — is still high in Myanmar.

Analysts say people need to understand why they seeing what they see online, and at this juncture there’s really one company that can shed some light on this issue in Myanmar: Facebook. The social media giant is now, at last, scrambling to stave off criticism about its past handling of abuses of its platform in Myanmar.

Yet last month when Facebook announced it would take down a number of covert and overt military pages in based in the country, the statement was made in English with nine other language options to choose from. Burmese, not to mention Shan, Kachin or Rohingya, was tellingly not among them.

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