Author: Jon Russell

Facebook is again criticized for failing to prevent religious conflict in Myanmar

Today marks the start of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s much-anticipated trip to Washington as he attends a hearing with the Senate, before moving on to a Congressional hearing tomorrow.

Away from the U.S. political capital, Zuckerberg is engaged in serious discussions about Myanmar with a group of six civil society organizations in the country who took umbrage at his claim that Facebook’s systems had prevented messages aimed at inciting violence between Buddhists and Muslims last September.

Following an open letter to Facebook on Friday that claimed the social network had relied on local sources and remains ill-equipped to handle hate speech, Zuckerberg himself stepped in to personally respond.

“Thank you for writing it and I apologize for not being sufficiently clear about the important role that your organizations play in helping us understand and respond to Myanmar-related issues, including the September incident you referred to,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“In making my remarks, my intention was to highlight how we’re building artificial intelligence to help us better identify abusive, hateful or false content even before it is flagged by our community,” he added.

Zuckerberg also claimed Facebook is working to implement new features that include the option to report inappropriate content inside Messenger, and adding more Burmese language reviewers — two suggestions that the Myanmar-based group had raised.

The group has, however, fired back again to criticize Zuckerberg’s response which it said is “nowhere near enough to ensure that Myanmar users are provided with the same standards of care as users in the U.S. or Europe.”

Young men browse their Facebook wall on their smartphones as they sit in a street in Yangon on August 20, 2015. Facebook remains the dominant social network for US Internet users, while Twitter has failed to keep apace with rivals like Instagram and Pinterest, a study showed. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

In particular, the six companies are asking Facebook and Zuckerberg to give information around its efforts, including the number of abuse reports it has received, how many have been removed, how quickly it has been done, and its progress on banning accounts.

In addition, the group asked for clarity on the number of Burmese content reviewers on staff, the exact mechanisms that are in place for detecting hate speech, and an update on what action Facebook has taken following its last meeting with the group in December.

“When things go wrong in Myanmar, the consequences can be really serious — potentially disastrous,” it added.

The Cambridge Analytica story has become mainstream news in the U.S. and other parts of the world, yet less is known of Facebook’s role in spreading religious hatred in Myanmar, where the government stands accused of ethnic cleansing following its treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingya population.

A recent UN Fact-Finding Mission concluded that social media has played a “determining role” in the crisis, which Facebook the chief actor.

“We know that the ultranationalist Buddhists have their own [Facebook pages] and really [are] inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities. I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, [instead of] what it was originally intended to be used [for],” the UN’s Yanghee Lee said to media.

Close to 30 million of Myanmar’s 50 million population is said to use the social network, making it a hugely effective way to reach large audiences.

“There’s this notion to many people [in Myanmar] that Facebook is the internet,” Jes Petersen, CEO of Phandeeyar — one of the companies involved in the correspondence with Zuckerberg — told TechCrunch in an interview last week.

Despite that huge popularity and high levels of abuse that Facebook itself has acknowledged, the social network does not have an office in Myanmar. In fact, its Burmese language reviewers are said to be stationed in Ireland while its policy team is located in Australia.

That doesn’t seem like the right combination, but it is also unclear whether Facebook is prepared to make changes to focus on user safety in Myanmar. The company declined to say whether it had plans to open an office on the ground when we asked last week.

Here’s Zuckerberg’s letter in full:

Dear Htaike Htaike, Jes, Victoire, Phyu Phyu and Thant,

I wanted to personally respond to your open letter. Thank you for writing it and I apologize for not being sufficiently clear about the important role that your organizations play in helping us understand and respond to Myanmar-related issues, including the September incident you referred to.

In making my remarks, my intention was to highlight how we’re building artificial intelligence to help us better identify abusive, hateful or false content even before it is flagged by our community.

These improvements in technology and tools are the kinds of solutions that your organizations have called on us to implement and we are committed to doing even more. For example, we are rolling out improvements to our reporting mechanism in Messenger to make it easier to find and simpler for people to report conversations.

In addition to improving our technology and tools, we have added dozens more Burmese language reviewers to handle reports from users across all our services. We have also increased the number of people across the company on Myanmar-related issues and we now we have a special product team working to better understand the specific local challenges and build the right tools to help keep people there safe.

There are several other improvements we have made or are making, and I have directed my teams to ensure we are doing all we can to get your feedback and keep you informed.

We are grateful for your support as we map out our ongoing work in Myanmar, and we are committed to working with you to find more ways to be responsive to these important issues.


And the group’s reply:

Dear Mark,

Thank you for responding to our letter from your personal email account. It means a lot.

We also appreciate your reiteration of the steps Facebook has taken and intends to take to improve your performance in Myanmar.

This doesn’t change our core belief that your proposed improvements are nowhere near enough to ensure that Myanmar users are provided with the same standards of care as users in the US or Europe.

When things go wrong in Myanmar, the consequences can be really serious – potentially disastrous. You have yourself publicly acknowledged the risk of the platform being abused towards real harm.

Like many discussions we have had with your policy team previously, your email focuses on inputs. We care about performance, progress and positive outcomes.

In the spirit of transparency, we would greatly appreciate if you could provide us with the following indicators, starting with the month of March 2018:

  • How many reports of abuse have you received?
  • What % of reported abuses did your team ultimately remove due to violations of the community standards?
  • How many accounts were behind flagging the reports received?
  • What was the average time it took for your review team to provide a final response to users of the reports they have raised?
  • What % of the reports received took more than 48 hours to receive a review?
  • Do you have a target for review times? Data from our own monitoring suggests that you might have an internal standard for review – with most reported posts being reviewed shortly after the 48 hrs mark. Is this accurate?
  • How many fake accounts did you identify and removed?
  • How many accounts did you subject to a temporary ban? How many did you ban from the platform?

Improved performance comes with investments and we would also like to ask for more clarifications around these. Most importantly, we would like to know:

  • How many Myanmar speaking reviewers did you have, in total, as of March 2018? How many do you expect to have by the end of the year? We are specifically interested in reviewers working on the Facebook service and looking for full-time equivalents figure.
  • What mechanisms do you have in place for stopping repeat offenders in Myanmar? We know for a fact that fake accounts remain a key issue and that individuals who were found to violate the community standards on a number of occasions continue to have a presence on the platform.
  • What steps have you taken to date to address the duplicate posts issue we raised in the briefing we provided your team in December 2017?

We’re enclosing our December briefing for your reference, as it further elaborates on the challenges we have been trying to work through with Facebook.


Myanmar group blasts Zuckerberg’s claim on Facebook hate speech prevention

It’s becoming common to say that Mark Zuckerberg is coming under fire, but the Facebook CEO is again being questioned, this time over a recent claim that Facebook’s internal monitoring system is able to thwart attempts to use its services to incite hatred.

Speaking to Vox, Zuckerberg used the example of Myanmar, where he claimed Facebook had successfully rooted out and prevented hate speech through a system that scans chats inside Messenger. In this case, Messenger had been used to send messages to Buddhists and Muslims with the aim of creating conflict on September 11 last year.

Zuckerberg told Vox:

The Myanmar issues have, I think, gotten a lot of focus inside the company. I remember, one Saturday morning, I got a phone call and we detected that people were trying to spread sensational messages through — it was Facebook Messenger in this case — to each side of the conflict, basically telling the Muslims, “Hey, there’s about to be an uprising of the Buddhists, so make sure that you are armed and go to this place.” And then the same thing on the other side.

So that’s the kind of thing where I think it is clear that people were trying to use our tools in order to incite real harm. Now, in that case, our systems detect that that’s going on. We stop those messages from going through. But this is certainly something that we’re paying a lot of attention to.

That claim has been rejected in a letter signed by six organizations in Myanmar, including tech accelerator firm Phandeeyar. Far from a success, the group said the incident shows why Facebook is not equipped to respond to hate speech in international markets since it relied entirely on information from the ground, where Facebook does not have an office, in order to learn of the issue.

The messages referenced by Zuckerberg, and translated to English by the Myanmar-based group

The group — which includes hate speech monitor Myanmar ICT for Development Organization and the Center for Social Integrity — explained that some four days elapsed between the sending of the first message and Facebook responding with a view to taking action.

In your interview, you refer to your detection ‘systems’. We believe your system, in this case, was us – and we were far from systematic. We identified the messages and escalated them to your team via email on Saturday the 9th September, Myanmar time. By then, the messages had already been circulating widely for three days.

The Messenger platform (at least in Myanmar) does not provide a reporting function, which would have enabled concerned individuals to flag the messages to you. Though these dangerous messages were deliberately pushed to large numbers of people – many people who received them say they did not personally know the sender – your team did not seem to have picked up on the pattern. For all of your data, it would seem that it was our personal connection with senior members of your team which led to the issue being dealt with.

The group added that it has not had feedback from the Messenger incident, and it is still to hear feedback on ideas raised at its last meeting with Facebook in November.

Myanmar has only recently embraced the internet in recent times, thanks to the slashing of the cost of a SIM card — which was once as much as $300 — but already most people in the country are online. Since its internet revolution has taken place over the last five years, the level of Facebook adoption per person is one of the highest in the world.

“Out of a 50 million population, there are nearly 30 million active users on Facebook every month,” Phandeeyar CEO Jes Petersen told TechCrunch. “There’s this notion to many people that Facebook is the internet.”

Young men browse their Facebook wall on their smartphones as they sit in a street in Yangon on August 20, 2015. Facebook remains the dominant social network for US Internet users, while Twitter has failed to keep apace with rivals like Instagram and Pinterest, a study showed. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook optimistically set out to connect the world, and particularly facilitate communication between governments and people, so that statistic may appear at face value to fit with its goal of connecting the world, but the platform has been abused in Myanmar.

Chiefly that has centered around stoking tension between the Muslim and Buddhist populations in the country.

The situation in the country is so severe that an estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees are thought to have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a Myanmar government crackdown that began in August. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has labeled the actions as ethnic cleansing, as has the UN.

Tensions inflamed, Facebook has been a primary outlet for racial hatred from high-profile individuals inside Myanmar. One of them, monk Ashin Wirathu who is barred from public speaking due to past history, moved online to Facebook where he quickly found an audience. Though he had his Facebook account shuttered, he has vowed to open new ones in order to continue to amplifly his voice via the social network.

Beyond visible figures, the platform has been ripe for anti-Muslim and anti-Rohinga memes and false new stories to go viral. UN investigators last month said Facebook has “turned into a beast” and played a key role in spreading hate.

Petersen said that Phandeeyar — which helped Facebook draft its local language community standards page — and others have held regular information meetings with the social network on the occasions that it has visited Myanmar. But the fact that it does not have an office in the country nor local speakers on its permanent staff has meant that little to nothing has been done.

Likewise, there is no organizational structure to handle the challenging situation in Myanmar, with many of its policy team based in Australia, and Facebook itself is not customized to solicit feedback from users in the country.

“If you are serious about making Facebook better, we urge you to invest more into moderation — particularly in countries, such as Myanmar, where Facebook has rapidly come to play a dominant role in how information is accessed and communicated,” the group wrote.

“We urge you to be more intent and proactive in engaging local groups, such as ours, who are invested in finding solutions, and — perhaps most importantly — we urge you to be more transparent about your processes, progress and the performance of your interventions, so as to enable us to work more effectively together,” they added in the letter.

Facebook has offices covering five of Southeast Asia’s largest countries — Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — and its approach to expansion has seemed to focus on advertising sales opportunities, with most staff in the region being sales or account management personnel. Using that framing, Myanmar — with a nascent online advertising space — isn’t likely to qualify for an office, but Phandeyaar’s Petersen believes there’s a strong alternative case.

“Myanmar could be a really good test market for how you fix these problems,” he said in an interview. “The issues are not exclusive to Myanmar, but Facebook is so dominant and there are serious issues in the country — here is an opportunity to test ways to mitigate hate speech and fake news.”

Indeed, Zuckerberg has been praised for pushing to make Facebook less addictive, even at the expense of reduced advertising revenue. By the same token, Facebook could sacrifice profit and invest in opening more offices worldwide to help live up to the responsibility of being the de facto internet in many countries. Hiring local people to work hand-in-hand with communities would be a huge step forward to addressing these issues.

With over $4 billion in profit per quarter, it’s hard to argue that Facebook can’t justify the cost of a couple of dozen people in countries where it has acknowledged that there are local issues. Like the newsfeed changes, there is probably a financially-motivated argument that a safer Facebook is better for business, but the humanitarian responsibility alone should be enough to justify the costs.

In a statement, Facebook apologized that Zuckerberg had not acknowledged the role of the local groups in reporting the messages.

“We took their reports very seriously and immediately investigated ways to help prevent the spread of this content. We should have been faster and are working hard to improve our technology and tools to detect and prevent abusive, hateful or false content,” a spokesperson said.

The company said it is rolling a feature to allow Messenger users to report abusive content inside the app. It said also that it has added more Burmese language reviewers to handle content across its services.

“There is more we need to do and we will continue to work with civil society groups in Myanmar and around the world to do better,” the spokesperson added.

The company didn’t respond when we asked if there are plans to open an office in Myanmar.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 11: Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the TechCrunch Conference at SF Design Center on September 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/WireImage)

Zuckerberg’s interview with Vox itself was one of the first steps of a media campaign that the Facebook supremo has embarked on in response to a wave of criticism and controversy that the company has weathered over the way it handles user data.

Facebook was heavily criticised last year for allowing Russian parties to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election using its platform, but the drama has intensified in recent weeks.

The company’s data privacy policy came under fire after it emerged that a developer named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan used the platform to administer a personality test app that collected data about participants and their friends. That data was then passed to Cambridge Analytica where it may have been leveraged to optimize political campaigns including that of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, allegations which the company itself vehemently denies. Regardless of how the data was employed to political ends, that lax data sharing was enough to ignite a firestorm around Facebook’s privacy practices.

Zuckerberg himself fronted a rare call with reporters this week in which he answered questions on a range of topics, including whether he should resign as Facebook CEO. (He said he won’t.)

Most recently, Facebook admitted that as many as 87 million people on the service may have been impacted by Cambridge Analytica’s activities. That’s some way above its initial estimate of 50 million. Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear in front of Congress to discuss the affair, and likely a whole lot more, on April 11. The following day, he has a date with the Senate to discuss, we presume, more of the same.

Following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, the company’s stock dropped precipitously, wiping more than $60 billion off its market capitalization from its prior period of stable growth.

Added to this data controversy, Facebook has been found to have deleted messages that Zuckerberg and other senior executives sent to some users, as TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reported this week. That’s despite the fact that Facebook and its Messenger product do not allow ordinary users to delete sent messages from a recipient’s inbox.

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