Cybersecurity & Tech

Why Were Members of Congress Asking Mark Zuckerberg About Myanmar? A Primer.

Evelyn Douek
Thursday, April 26, 2018, 7:00 AM

During Mark Zuckerberg’s 10-plus hours of testimony before Congress on April 10 and 11, the Facebook CEO was asked at least six times about his company’s alleged censorship of conservative internet personalities Diamond and Silk—to the point where New York Times tech

A U.N. camp for displaced persons in Rakhine state. Credit: UK International Development Agency/Wikimedia

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During Mark Zuckerberg’s 10-plus hours of testimony before Congress on April 10 and 11, the Facebook CEO was asked at least six times about his company’s alleged censorship of conservative internet personalities Diamond and Silk—to the point where New York Times technology reporter Kevin Roose commented, “I think if you were an alien who dropped down to earth to observe the testimony … you would think there was no one on earth who was more important than Diamond and Silk.” In contrast, Zuckerberg fielded exactly three questions about his company’s role in the ongoing violence in Myanmar—one of the most pressing human rights atrocities of our time.

This was a missed opportunity. At this point, that Facebook has played a role in spreading the violence in Myanmar is indisputable. The ongoing crisis raises many legal questions and exposes a lacuna in the law that political and public pressure is currently trying to fill. But one thing is clear: This crisis should be an important part of the conversation about the role of the big technology companies in societies around the world. If developed countries are concerned with the impacts of social media on civil discourse, they should not forget that the same impacts can have more drastic effects in developing countries—and will continue to do so as millions more people come online.

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has called the latest wave of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The crackdown by the country’s security forces, which began in August 2017 has, precipitated the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world: Over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in total have now fled to Bangladesh. Myanmar has blocked most international access to Rakhine state, where the violence is occurring, making reliable estimates of death tolls near impossible. Doctors Without Borders said late last year that its conservative estimates of casualties were at least 6,700, including at least 730 children under the age of five.

This is just the latest flare-up of long-simmering ethnic tensions between the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority and its Buddhist majority, who view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Zeid has drawn attention to the progressive stripping of the political and civil rights of the Rohingya population by “successive Myanmar governments … since 1962.” But the tension has come to the fore again since the country started its transition to democracy in 2010, as deep ethnic tensions have erupted into periodic waves of violence and fractured a society no longer suppressed by military rule.

Facebook’s Role in Myanmar

Facebook founded the controversial “Free Basics” initiative in 2013 under the name, with the goal of bringing greater internet connectivity to rural and low-income populations around the world. The Free Basics platform allows users to access supported services for free by giving them a “zero-rating,” meaning that those services did not count towards the user’s data cap. Free Basics launched in Myanmar in 2016, and its influence has been profound. Free Basics’ arrival coincided with the arrival of the internet more generally: Internet penetration in Myanmar has gone from only 2 percent in 2013 to 25.1 percent in 2017, and over 90 percent of the country’s population now have access to a phone with internet service.

This means that to many in Myanmar, “Facebook is the internet.” Facebook entered into a society that had low internet literacy to begin with, carrying the characteristics of its platform that have also caused controversy elsewhere: promotion of echo chambers that cause fragmentation and polarization of the public sphere, algorithms that optimize for engagement and prioritize extremist content, and the capacity for information to go “viral” and reach audiences at unprecedented speed and scale.

As a result, Facebook has become a primary conduit for the spread of anti-Rohingya propaganda and hate speech. U.N. investigators have directly pointed the finger at Facebook as playing a “determining role” in the violence, saying that “Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.” Reporting has shown that hate speech spreads through “affinity groups” in Facebook or WhatsApp group messages that include friends or relatives who are “trusted sources.” As people are often members of many such groups, hate speech and misinformation jumps from group to group, each time appearing to come from a trusted source.

Facebook has also given key figures a megaphone. The leader of a prominent group of radical Buddhist monks, Ashin Wirathu, built up a large following on the platform before Facebook permanently disabled his account in January this year. A New York Times reporter in Myanmar, Paul Mozur, said Wirathu used to print paper flyers to spread his messages, but Facebook allowed him to get 100 times the reach. And it is the singular feature of the internet that Wirathu could also obtain that reach more quickly and cheaply online.

Flat-footed Facebook

In 2013, almost five years ago, Zeynep Tufecki, a leading researcher on social implications of digital connectivity, tweeted:

Evelyn Douek is an Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School on the topic of private and public regulation of online speech. Prior to attending HLS, Evelyn was an Associate (clerk) to the Honourable Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia. She received her LL.B. from UNSW Sydney, where she was Executive Editor of the UNSW Law Journal.

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