As violent ethnic clashes and a labyrinth of civil wars continue to plague Myanmar, Facebook banned four armed groups based in the country from using the platform. The Tuesday announcement came as part of an ongoing effort to oust “dangerous organisations” promoting violence on the social network.
Facebook has a long and dark history in Myanmar where it’s been accused of failing to foresee and act to prevent abuse of its platform that’s led to massive and ongoing violence.
Both internally and publicly, Facebook officials including CEO Mark Zuckerberg have in the last year acknowledged that they were “too slow” to act to prevent posts stoking genocide in the southeast Asian nation.
The social network has been used to promote violence in the country for at least half a decade. In 2014, Facebook only had a single contractor able to speak Burmese and review problematic posts promoting violence.
Almost all of Myanmar’s 20 million internet users are on Facebook. Last year, United Nations researchers concluded the platform played a “determining role” in inciting genocide that’s resulted in at least tens of thousands of deaths and nearly one million individuals fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh. Most of the people directly impacted belong to the Rhoyinga, a Muslim ethnic group based primarily in Western Myanmar.
On Tuesday, Facebook banned the Arakan Army alongside the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Kachin Independence Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The groups compose the Northern Alliance, a patchwork militant coalition of different ethnic groups that’s been fighting the Myanmar government in their respective regions in conflicts that stretch back, on and off, over three decades.
The story behind this particular round of action from Facebook was kickstarted one month ago when Myanmar’s government vowed to “crush” the insurgent group known as Arakan Army after the group attacked police stations in January. An Arakan Army spokesperson then told the New York Times the violence was retaliation against attacks by Myanmar’s military, making it clear that the fighting was part of a cycle of violence that’s proven inescapable thus far.
“These armed groups are now banned from Facebook and all related praise, support and representation will be removed as soon as we become aware of it,” the company announced in a blog post. Facebook pointed to “clear evidence that these organisations have been responsible for attacks against civilians and have engaged in violence in Myanmar, and we want to prevent them from using our services to further inflame tensions on the ground.”
Facebook’s post announcing the new round of bans totals around 400 words, a short statement that fails to explain in detail all the rationale behind the move. Myanmar is home to considerably more than four separate armed groups. Facebook did not yet respond to Gizmodo’s follow up questions.
Each colored blob on this map of Myanmar is the claimed turf of a different armed group — each defending a different ethnicity. Strangely, Facebook is banning only four of these groups. Four that happen to be particularly hated by the army. Rationale unclear. pic.twitter.com/knOzjGr4iW
— Patrick Winn (@pwinn5) February 5, 2019
The United Nations said over 4,500 people were displaced beginning in December 2019 due to fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar national government. Other groups on the list were involved in recent clashes that left dozens dead.
In 2018, Facebook removed accounts and pages relating to the Myanmar military that the company said spread misinformation and hate about the Rhoyinga. The Myanmar military online campaign stretches back half a decade, a timeline that calls a harsh spotlight on to Facebook’s slow reaction to the ongoing crisis.
The challenge is far from over. In addition to ongoing violence, a 2020 general election is on the horizon for Myanmar, and observers expect the country’s most popular website, Facebook, to play an important role for better or worse.
“We recognise that the sources of ethnic violence in Myanmar are incredibly complex and cannot be resolved by a social media company,” the company said when the bans were announced on Tuesday, “but we also want to do the best we can to limit incitement and hate that furthers an already deadly conflict.”