For years, Facebook has served as a catalyst for violence against Myanmar’s minority Rohingya population and the company has failed to effectively moderate hateful content inciting such brutality. On Monday, a report from the New York Times found that over the last several years, military officials in the region have been running a massive campaign to distribute this dangerous propaganda, which lured in over a million users by posing as celebrity and news pages.
According to the New York Times report, approximately 700 people assisted in the operation, which attracted users on Facebook by creating pages for the likes of “Burmese pop stars, models and other celebrities, like a beauty queen with a penchant for parroting military propaganda.” Accounts controlled by the military would then post sensationalist images and misinformation targeted at the Rohingya. “Often, they posted sham photos of corpses that they said were evidence of Rohingya-perpetrated massacres,” the New York Times reported, according to a source.
Facebook took belated action in August when it announced that it had banned Myanmar military officials and organisations—including Myanmar commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—from its platform. The ban was a result of a damning human rights report that revealed how these officials exploited Facebook to incite violence with what the UN Human Rights Council characterised as “genocidal intent.”
Today, Facebook updated its post from August to include the pages detailed in Monday’s New York Times report. The social network said that it took down an additional 13 pages and 10 accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook in Myanmar.” The company added that it found “that these seemingly independent entertainment, beauty and informational Pages were linked to the Myanmar military,” which is a violation of Facebook’s misrepresentation policy. Facebook noted that “about 1.35 million unique people followed at least one of these 13 Pages.”
The New York Times report goes into detail on how the military executed its misinformation campaign, stating that those involved in the operation worked in shifts near Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, and that “all but top leaders had to check their phones at the door” in order to maintain their covertness.
The New York Times report also describes a particularly unsettling exploitation of Facebook’s platform to stoke fear and incite violence among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and its Muslim Rohingya minority. It reports that last year, on the anniversary of 9/11, military officials messaged followers of some of the innocuous Facebook Pages over Messenger, telling members from each of the aforementioned groups that the other was orchestrating a terrorist attack against the other.
“The military has gotten a lot of benefit from Facebook,” Thet Swe Win, founder of Synergy, a nonprofit dedicated to social needs in Myanmar, told the New York Times. “I wouldn’t say Facebook is directly involved in the ethnic cleansing, but there is a responsibility they had to take proper actions to avoid becoming an instigator of genocide.”