Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

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Leroy N. Soetoro

Jun 27, 2021, 5:14:24 PMJun 27

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and
other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar
following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights
group Global Witness says.

A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected
leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and
“like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence,
pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the
military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report,
published late Tuesday.

That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content
following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and
military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also
owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm
in the country

Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation
in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that
break our rules.”

Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to
Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and
organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks,
Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning
all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise
or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.

“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping
announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to
improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said
Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found
evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and
Azerbaijan while she worked there.

The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s
elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.

Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the
United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human
rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have
executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned
down a village.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in
January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social
media management platform NapoleonCat.

“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is
doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western
Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook
and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many
people in the country, Facebook effectively is the internet.

On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians,
Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no
history of liking or following specific topics and searched for
“Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search
results to show pages and selected the top result — a military fan page
whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”

Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at
least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of
the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when
Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending
related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of
interference in last year’s election and support of violence against

A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters
who vandalize surveillance cameras.

“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office
and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the
cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an
order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in
translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts
doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you
are not afraid to die, keep going.”

Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it
harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly
adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates
our policies to help keep people safe.”

Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the
“very basics” of its own guidelines.

“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are
designed, trained and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,”
said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness.
“This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”

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