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Jakarta Post

How Facebook contributes to Myanmar violence

  • Makarim Wibisono and Bahtiar Manurung

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Jakarta   /   Thu, September 27, 2018   /   10:02 am
How Facebook contributes to Myanmar violence Rohingya Muslim refugees who entered Bangladesh by boat walk towards refugee camps after landing at the Saplapur beach in the Teknaf district of Bangladesh on November 9, 2017. (AFP/DIBYANGSHU SARKAR )

The final report of the United Nations’ Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar provides a strong reminder of the responsibility of businesses to assess any human rights impacts linked to their operations, products and services.

If the manufacturing and natural resources sectors were on the frontline of human rights issues in the past, today it has clearly moved to envelop information technology. The report of the mission, chaired by Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, clearly states that Facebook played a significant role in fueling discriminatory sentiments that led to violence against the Rohingya. 

It is believed that Facebook was used as a conduit to spread misinformation through posts and messages framed in an alleged Islamic “takeover”, or of Muslims harming Buddhists (especially women), and that such misinformation was alleged to have spurred discrimination and violence in Myanmar. 

The report was specific in its examples, stating that as early as 2012, a post about the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men was widely shared on Facebook and is considered to have contributed to the tension and violence in Rakhine state that year. Similarly, posts about an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslims in Mandalay are considered to have led to the riots there in 2014.

Moreover, many of these comments indicating deep-rooted discriminatory sentiments against the Rohingya were posted by officials or representatives, including from military and security forces, as well as politicians and non-government actors such as academics and monks. 

Indeed, Tatmadaw (military) commander in chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing posted an inflammatory statement on March 19: “Bengali do not have any characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar. The tensions [in Rakhine state] were fueled because the Bengali demanded citizenship.” 

The word “Bengali” is, of course, a derogatory term used to demean and discriminate against the Rohingya. 

Following public condemnation by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 26, the English versions posted on both the commander’s website and Facebook were deleted, although a Burmese version was still on his website as late as July — hardly a full retraction. 

After the delivery of the fact-finding mission’s initial report to the UN, accusing the army of carrying out mass killings and rape of the Rohingya, within hours Facebook removed 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages, followed by almost 12 million people from its platforms.

Although declining to make spokespeople available, the social media giant stated in a blog post that after reviewing the content, it wanted to prevent the spread of “hate and misinformation”, while admitting it had been too slow to react to the crisis. This not the first time one might add that Facebook has belatedly admitted its failings to adequately check the source of certain postings. 

The last time was leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election.

While this reaction from Facebook marks a fresh start, more is expected for the giant corporation to meet its responsibility to respect human rights as espoused in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). 

The UNGPs, the single authoritative global standard on business and human rights, require business enterprises to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships.

The fact-finding report on Facebook’s role in violence against the Rohingya indicates that the social media platform has not conducted adequate assessments on the human rights impacts directly linked to its product. 

To avoid a reoccurrence, Facebook must conduct immediate and regular human rights impact assessments on the use of its social media platform. 

Rigorous assessments would reveal potential human rights impacts that Facebook may have contributed to around the world. It can then take prompt actions in respect to the countries with the most significant human rights impacts, plus immediately remediate any impacts that have occurred. 

Facebook should be well-aware of this requirement, being no neophyte when it comes to understanding its responsibilities to respect human rights. Having joined the Global Network Initiative in 2013, Facebook has already pledged to abide by a set of human rights principles for respecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy of its users.

Earlier last week, Facebook was reportedly planning to hire a “human rights policy director”, an unprecedented position in the company. 

This signals awareness of the need for a better human rights policy for the use of its platform and improve its efforts on conflict prevention and peace building, plus making Facebook a positive force for human rights.

In this prompt response, Facebook seems determined to avoid repeating its mistakes in taking well over a year to respond to the misinformation that helped fuel violence against the Rohingya. 

We hope to see Facebook prove it is committed to implementing an improved human rights policy that not only will prevent the spread of hate and discriminatory sentiments but save lives and protect basic human dignity. 

Our greatest hopes, though, are that Facebook’s very public lesson about the effects of its failure to properly assess human rights impacts linked to the use of its product will alert other social media platforms, such as Twitter, etc., to the danger of similar pitfalls. 

With social media now on the frontline of human rights issues, plus the large number of users they attract to their platforms, they must get it right. 

Rather than being platforms characterized by misinformation and hatred, they have an even greater responsibility to ensure the construction of informative and inclusive societies. 

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Makarim Wibisono and Bahtiar Manurung are respectively the co-founder and operations director at the Foundation for International Human Rights Reporting Standards (FIHRRST). Its chairman Marzuki Darusman chaired the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.