Nadav Spiegelman

Meta in Myanmar, Part II: The Crisis

https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis
Author
erinkissane.com
My last highlight
2024-01-22
Number of highlights
14

My Highlights

As various boondoggles have recently demonstrated, social media executives are not necessarily *brilliant* people, but neither is Mark Zuckerberg a hayseed. What his new “Next Billion” initiative to “connect the world“ will do is build and reinforce monopolistic structures that give [underdeveloped](https://www.versobooks.com/products/788-how-europe-underdeveloped-africa) countries not real “internet access” but…[mostly just Facebook](https://www.theverge.com/2017/7/27/16050446/facebook-net-neutrality-digital-colonialism-internet-org), stripped down and [zero-rated](https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/02/zero-rating-what-it-is-why-you-should-care) so that using it doesn’t rack up data charges.
For years, Meta employs a total of *one Burmese-speaking moderator* for this country of 50M+ people—which by the end of 2015 they increased to four.
In *An Ugly Truth*, their 2021 book about Meta’s inner workings, *New York Times* reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecelia Kang write that no one at Meta was responsible for assessing cultural and political dynamics as new communities came online, or even tracking whether they had linguistically and culturally competent moderators to support each new country.
This brings me back to [Faine Greenwood’s essay](https://faineg.com/facebook-destroys-everything-part-1/) that I also quoted from a lot in the previous post, and specifically to Greenwood’s “honest-to-god Thomas Friedman moment” in a Burmese cab back in 2013: > The driver was a charming young Burmese man who spoke good English, and we chatted about the usual things for a bit: the weather (sticky), how I liked Yangon (quite a bit, hungry dogs aside), and my opinion on Burmese food (I’m a fan). > > Then he asked me what I was in town for, and I told him that I’d come to write about the Internet. “Oh, yes, I’ve got a Facebook account now,” he said, with great enthusiasm. “It is very interesting. Learning a lot. I didn’t know about all the bad things the Bengalis had been doing.” > > “Bad things?” I asked, though I knew what he was going to say next. > > “Killing Buddhists, stealing their land. There’s pictures on Facebook. Everyone knows they’re terrorists,” he replied. > > “Oh, fuck,” I thought.[13](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-13YVR)
The escalation from relatively isolated incidents of anti-Rohingya violence pre-2012 into the two big waves of attacks that year, the semi-communal semi-state violence in 2016, and the full-on Tatmadaw-led genocide in 2017 was accompanied by an overwhelming rise in Facebook-mediated disinformation and violence-inciting messages. And as I’ve tried to show and will keep illustrating with examples, these messages built intense anti-Rohingya beliefs and fears throughout Myanmar’s mainstream Buddhist culture. Those beliefs and fears quite clearly led to direct incidents of communal (non-state) violence.
Amnesty International’s 2022 report, “[The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya](https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/ASA16/5933/2022/en/),” directly implicates Meta in the genocidal propaganda campaigns and furor that led up to the Tatmadaw’s atrocities in Rakhine State. The viral acceleration of dehumanizing and violent posts in 2017, Amnesty writes, made those messages “appear ubiquitous on Burmese-language Facebook, creating a sense that everyone in Myanmar shared these views, helping to build a shared sense of urgency in finding a ‘solution’ to the ‘Bengali problem’ and ultimately building support for the military’s 2017 ‘clearance operations’.”[37](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-37YVR)
The UN Mission’s report includes many other examples of religious, governmental, and military figures comparing Rohingya people to fleas, weeds, and animals—and in some cases, making explicit reference to the necessity of emulating both the Holocaust and the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[41](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-41YVR)
Another post: “Accusations of genocide are unfounded, because those that the Myanmar army is killing are not people, but animals. We won’t go to hell for killing these creatures that are not worth to be humans.”
Another post: “Accusations of genocide are unfounded, because those that the Myanmar army is killing are not people, but animals. We won’t go to hell for killing these creatures that are not worth to be humans.”
The UN Mission team investigating the attacks on the Rohingya knows Michael. They get involved, reporting the post with the photo of Michael’s passport in it to Facebook four times. Each time, they get the same response: the post had been reviewed and “doesn’t go against one of [Facebook’s] specific Community Standards.”[49](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-49YVR)
And as we now know, Meta’s fleet of Burmese-speaking contractors had grown to a total of four at the end of 2015. According to Reuters, in 2018, Meta had about 60 people reviewing reported content from Myanmar via the Accenture-run “Project Honey Badger” contract operation in Kuala Lumpur, plus three more in Dublin, to monitor Myanmar’s approximately 18 million Facebook users.[46](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-46YVR) So in 2016 and 2017, Meta has somewhere between 4 and 63-ish Burmese speakers monitoring hate speech and violence-inciting messages in Myanmar. And zero of them, incidentally, in Myanmar itself.
As it turns out, *even the United Nations’ own Mission, acting in an official capacity*, can’t get Facebook to remove posts explicitly calling for the murder of a human rights defender.
The response by anti-Rohingya extremists is immediate and intense: The most dangerous Facebook post made about Michael features a picture of his opened passport and describes him as a “Muslim” and “national traitor.” The comments on the Facebook post call for Michael’s murder: “If this animal is still around, find him and kill him. There needs to be government officials in NGOs.” “He is a Muslim. Muslims are dogs and need to be shot.” “Don’t leave him alive. Remove his whole race. Time is ticking.”[48](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-48YVR)
The result for Myanmar’s millions of Facebook users is an explosive decompression of its online information sphere. In 2015, before Instant Articles expands to Myanmar, 6 out of 10 websites getting the most engagement on Facebook in Myanmar are “legitimate” media organizations. A year after Instant Articles hits the country, legitimate publishers make up only 2 of the top 10 publishers on Facebook. By 2018, the number of legit publishers on the list is zero—*all 10* are fake news.[54](https://erinkissane.com/meta-in-myanmar-part-ii-the-crisis#footnote-54YVR)