Facebook Inc. has removed hundreds of additional pages and several groups linked to the Myanmar military from its social media network, a move that comes amid efforts by government officials to advance legislation to combat cyber-related offenses and prevent the misuse of social media, the U.S. company said Tuesday.
The social media giant said in a statement that it deleted 425 pages, 17 groups, and 135 accounts from its social network, and 15 accounts from its Instagram photo-sharing service, “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook.”
“As part of our ongoing investigations into this type of behavior in Myanmar, we discovered that these seemingly independent news, entertainment, beauty, and lifestyle pages were linked to the Myanmar military, and to the pages we removed for coordinated inauthentic behavior in Myanmar in August,” the statement said.
“This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook under our misrepresentation policy because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” it said.
Approximately 2.5 million people followed at least one of these pages, about 6,400 people belonged to at least one of the groups, and about 1,300 people followed at least one of the Instagram accounts, Facebook said.
Facebook, which has an estimated 20 million users in Myanmar out of a total population of about 53 million, also said it based the decision to remove the pages on the behavior of those who operated them rather than on the type of content they posted.
The company said it would continue to provide updates on abuse it finds and removes as it continues its investigation.
Myat Thu, a Myanmar researcher who works to combat online hate speech, said he welcomes the move.
“I believe Facebook’s removal of accounts spreading hate speech intentionally is somewhat useful,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “But it would be much more effective if Facebook can expose such accounts and research their [the account owners’] behavior to prevent them from resurfacing rather than just shutting down the accounts.”
“Most importantly, Facebook should invest in reporting mechanisms for users instead of waiting for the users to report the issue,” he said. “It would be the best if Facebook and the Myanmar government invested more in information and media awareness programs.”
Attacks on Rohingya
Activity on Facebook in Myanmar increased dramatically following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Rohingya militant group in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, which sparked a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya communities.
Soldiers and other security forces conducted a campaign of indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson that prompted nearly 730,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The government has denied that its forces committed the atrocities, though the U.N., rights groups, and some nations say their actions amounted to ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent, or genocide itself.
Earlier this year, Facebook set up a dedicated team to identify and remove content using hate speech and spreading misinformation on the social platform in Myanmar to fuel ethnic violence.
In August, the company removed several accounts and dozens of pages promoting violence against the Rohingya, and banned 20 individuals and organizations from Facebook in Myanmar, including military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the military’s Myawady television network.
But critics argued that damage had already been done because the pages were used to spread hate and foment violence for months before Facebook took action.
That move came following the release of a report by a U.N.-authorized fact-finding mission that found evidence that the individuals and organizations had committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.
The fact-finding mission also took Facebook to task for not fulfilling past promises to monitor how its network was being used to spread hatred in Myanmar and for refusing to provide country-specific data about hate speech.
Facebook commissioned the San Francisco-based nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) to undertake an assessment of the company’s presence in Myanmar between May and September, to identify actual and potential human rights impacts, and to make recommendations for their mitigation and management.
The report issued by BSR in October said that Facebook has “become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm, and posts have been linked to offline violence.”
“A minority of users is seeking to use Facebook as a platform to undermine democracy and incite offline violence, including serious crimes under international law; for example, the Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar describes how Facebook has been used by bad actors to spread anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya, and anti-activist sentiment,” it said.
Two months ago, Facebook said it had removed 13 additional pages and 10 accounts of individuals and entities that engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on its platform in Myanmar, following a report by The New York Times on the use of celebrity and entertainment accounts to disseminate military propaganda.
Drafting of cyberlaw
Meanwhile, Myanmar government officials are putting forward legislation that would address the issue of cybercrime, including the misuse of social media.
On Tuesday, Thant Zin Maung, Myanmar’s minister of transport and communications, told the national parliament that a new cyberlaw is in the making.
“A bill for a cyberlaw is being drafted to put forward at the next parliamentary sessions within 30 days,” he said. “I’d like to announce that the draft bill will cover the use of social media such as Facebook [and] Twitter and include personal data protection and child online protection.”
Myanmar Information Minister Aung Hla Tun told RFA that a bill concerning rights to information is being drafted.
“Rights to information are not just for journalists, but for every citizen,” he said. “It’s being drafted in order to strengthen the rights to information for every citizen. We’re trying to draft the bill to match international standards.”
Researcher Myat Thu, who has met with the Facebook team in Yangon, said that the government needs to seek feedback from various stakeholders while drafting such bills to ensure that genuine perpetrators of hate speech and misinformation can be prosecuted and that the laws themselves are not abused.
“Some [social media networks] were intentionally spreading hate speech,” he said. “But there are other users who were unaware of fake news and simply shared it and made comments.”
“Our generation has been through military dictatorship and isn’t clear about what real media is,” he said, referring to the half-century during which Myanmar was under military rule and the press was subject to censorship. “So, some might make honest mistakes.”
Myat Thu also said he is not convinced that such laws will be helpful, because many new laws tend to oppress people rather than protect them.
“So, it [the process] should involve public feedback, civil society, experts, and the media if such a law is to be drafted,” he said.
Reported and translated by Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.