UN probe ties Facebook to spreading hate in Myanmar crisis

UN investigators say Facebook is helping spread hate speech in a possible genocide situation.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
2 min read

Myanmar Red Cross members and a soldier seen near a damaged car after a bomb exploded near a bank in Lashion, Myanmar, in February. At least two people were killed and several wounded.

Nay Myo/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook played a role in spreading hate speech in Myanmar, according to UN human rights experts investigating a possible genocide there.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said social media has played a "determining role" in the crisis, in which hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslims have fled the country, according to Reuters.

"It has ... substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media," he said.

More than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state since rebel attacks sparked a military backlash last August. Many refugees have described executions and rapes by Myanmar security forces.

Facebook has admitted the difficulty it faces in tackling hate speech. The world's most popular social network said last year it removes about 66,000 posts a week -- around 288,000 monthly -- on what it considers hateful rhetoric.

Facebook defines hate speech as attacks on people based on their race, sexual orientation and other "protected characteristics," saying it depends heavily on its now 2 billion users to report any hate speech they encounter. Workers review the posts and decide whether to take them down.

Facebook said it works hard to keep hate speech off the social network.

"We have invested significantly in technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content and people who repeatedly violate our hate speech policies," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We take this incredibly seriously and have worked with experts in Myanmar for several years to develop safety resources and counter-speech campaigns."

Updated 3/13 at 8 a.m. PT with Facebook comment.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."