In Myanmar, hate speech runs deeper than Facebook

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April has been a stressful month for many, but particularly for Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg. His frantic facial expressions and gloomy voices during his 10-hour-long, two-day congressional testimony proved that he is in a tough position.

But the good news for him was that he became a little bit richer after spending a few arduous days in Washington, DC, as his shares at Facebook jumped during the hearings.

In addition to plans to solve the current issues and allegations that his billion-dollar company is facing, he also stressed the important steps his company is taking to tackle hate speech, particularly in Myanmar.

On the first day of the testimony, Senator Patrick Leahy raised the Rohingya issue and asked Zuckerberg whether or not Facebook was able to take down a hate-speech post within 24 hours. In response, Zuckerberg explained three areas in which his company is working specifically for Myanmar.

First area

“One is we’re hiring dozens of more Burmese-language content reviewers because hate speech is very language-specific. It’s hard to do it without people who speak the local language, and we need to ramp up our effort there dramatically.”

Zuckerberg acknowledges that understanding the local language is vital to addressing the hate-speech issue in Myanmar. However, what he might not understand is that Burmese is only one of the many languages spoken in Myanmar. There are hundreds of different languages spoken by indigenous people and local ethnic groups.

Thus, though it is sensible to work with Burmese speakers to tackle hate speech, it will not fully resolve the issue. This is not to say that working with Burmese speakers will be entirely in vain. Rather, this is a good first step and, in fact, Facebook’s Dublin office recently opened a recruitment program to hire a few staffers from Myanmar to initiate the aforementioned first area.

But Facebook needs a more meaningful approach than this to get a clear picture of the scope of the hate-speech issue.

Throughout the hearings, every time he was asked about hate speech, Zuckerberg struggled to define what hate speech is. His struggle was absolutely understandable, as different societies interpret hate speech differently. And it is clear that Facebook cannot censor every time somebody reports something from Myanmar, as it takes time to review the content and to decide whether it is, in fact, hate speech.

Second area

“Second is we’re working with civil society in Myanmar to identify specific hate figures so we can take down their accounts, rather than specific pieces of content.”

There is no doubt that Facebook has contributed to the spread of hate speech in Myanmar. However, the important question is, is Facebook the main cause of hate speech in Myanmar?

Myanmar is blessed with strong civil-society organizations (CSOs) that are trying to stop hate speech to some degree. Prior to his testimony, Zuckerberg responded to an open letter that was sent to him by a group of civil-society organizations in Myanmar, saying that he acknowledged the important roles Myanmar CSOs are playing to address issues such as hate speech.

It is a paramount achievement for Myanmar CSOs that they have finally received the close attention of the Facebook CEO. Zuckerberg should maintain this momentous relationship with Myanmar CSOs, whose resources could prove beneficial for Facebook in order to get a clear picture of the local context.

Third area

“And third is we’re standing up a product team to do specific product changes in Myanmar and other countries that may have similar issues in the future to prevent this from happening.”

Zuckerberg told senators that he was also developing artificial-intelligence tools that would be able to detect hate speech. He also said it would take five to 10 years or more to develop these anti-hate speech tools.

In a way, Zuckerberg was implying that the issue of hate speech was so fathomless that it would take years of effort to resolve fully. He also seems to believe that it is possible to address hate speech with advanced AI tools without relying much on human effort.

There is no doubt that Facebook has contributed to the spread of hate speech in Myanmar. However, the important question is, is Facebook the main cause of hate speech in Myanmar?

Myanmar’s lost pluralistic society

It now seems a myth that Myanmar was a leading example of a pluralistic society in its heyday. On the surface, it seems that Myanmar is far from becoming what the late American moral and political philosopher John Rawls called a “well-ordered society.” But if one dives deep into the very heart of Myanmar society, one can witness many sanguine characteristics of a pluralistic society.

Take downtown Yangon as an example. Within a small area, different religious sites such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Sule Pagoda, Immanuel Baptist Church, Saint Mary’s Cathedral,  Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, the Moghul Shia Masjid and dozens of Hindu temples such as the Shri Satyanarayan are standing side by side.

Less than 10 kilometers from the Sule area, there is the University of Yangon, which was (as Rangoon University) considered one of the best in Southeast Asia throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Students from across Asia traveled to this area to get a fine education that would enable them to land their dream jobs in emerging post-colonial markets in Asia.

The bitter truth is that the decades-long military rule wiped out Myanmar’s pluralistic society together with many other things. The junta shut down almost all of the social-science subjects that had helped students learn to think critically.

After several decades of being misguided by an impoverished and underdeveloped education system, people cannot think rationally anymore. Though the post-military governments have reintroduced social-science disciplines such as a political-science undergraduate degree program at Yangon University, Myanmar has lost a pluralistic society in which people of different faiths tolerated and respected one another. A shared value was lost and it has become a nation of intolerance.  

The role of Facebook in Myanmar can be seen as a contributing factor rather than as the main cause of spreading hate speech. And the three areas that Zuckerberg discussed during his testimony would definitely help Myanmar deter hate speech to some extent.

This is not to say, however, that Facebook alone can solve anti-religious sentiments in Myanmar. To have a greater impact, it is vital that the main causes of the hate speech are fully realized by Myanmar stakeholders themselves.

The government and the people of Myanmar should put significant effort into restoring the pluralistic society that they once celebrated. Meanwhile, there is no better time to remember what Nelson Mandela taught the world by saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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