As Facebook works to further establish itself in developing markets, it's constantly met with a level of hesitation, as local officials question the value of allowing Facebook in, weighed against the risks.
Much of that consideration can be linked back to Myanmar, where Facebook has become a key platform for connectivity as internet adoption has increased in the nation. At the same time, Facebook has also become a central medium for spreading hate speech, and even inciting riots, leading many to question the value of the app, and its efforts to protect citizens from these negative impacts.
Which is why the upcoming Myanmar election is so important. On November 8th, Myanmar will head to the polls for the first time since 2015, and many will be watching Facebook's response to the campaign, and the role it plays in protecting free speech, while reducing the spread of hateful content that could lead to further unrest.
This week, Facebook has provided an overview of the various measures its implemented to protect the poll, including:
- Expanded efforts to stop voter suppression
- Improved enforcement of hate speech content
- Adding 'Paid for by' disclaimer notes to political posts
- New warnings on potential hateful content before sharing
- New limits on message forwarding
Myanmar, in a sense, is a case study for developing regions. And if Facebook fails in this test, it could make it much harder for the platform to gain acceptance in further regions moving forward.
As detailed by Wired, Facebook's role in facilitating all out riots in Myanmar has been significant.
In 2014, a post circulated on Facebook falsely accused a Mandalay business owner of raping a female employee. That post lead to the gathering of a mob, which eventually lead to massive unrest. The accusation was incorrect, but Facebook's vast distribution in the region enabled it to grow quickly, beyond the control of authorities.
This is just one of many cases in which Facebook has enabled false and hateful information to spread, and that's since branched into political speech and propaganda, making Facebook a central player in varying forms of unrest and anger within the community.
One of the most concerning examples of this was a campaign conducted by Myanmar military personnel, who used The Social Network to stoke hatred for the country’s Muslim Rohingya community.
As reported by The New York Times:
"In August , after months of reports about anti-Rohingya propaganda, [Facebook] acknowledged that it had been too slow to act in Myanmar. By then, more than 700,000 Rohingya had fled the country in a year, in what United Nations officials called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The company has said it is bolstering its efforts to stop such abuses."
In some ways, Myanmar is a better case study in Facebook's facilitation of hate speech than the US or western nations. As questions continue to be raised about the platform's role in sowing societal division, Myanmar is something of a microcosm of how, exactly, this works. There's no question that the rapid and expansive reach of Facebook has facilitated mob violence in the region, with rumors quickly becoming truth, and Facebook has been forced to assess its operations, and improve its systems, in order to limit such.
Which it has done, but how effective those efforts have been will soon be put to the ultimate test.
Of course, western nations won't see themselves in the Myanmar example. Myanmar is a far smaller nation, with lower levels of digital literacy. Yet, even so, the same trends are evident in Myanmar as in most other regions. Facebook facilitates the spread of hate speech, which sows division. And while Facebook, as detailed in its post, has implemented various measures to keep people safe this time around, it will be interesting to see whether that stops the same levels of violence that occurred in 2015 - and what role Facebook plays in such.
It's an interesting case study, and while we'll have to wait till after the US Election to see how the Myanmar poll plays out, it could provide some key considerations for how we should approach Facebook moving forward, with respect to the role it now plays in disseminating key information, and protecting users from misinformation campaigns.
Many tout the values of free speech in condemning Facebook for taking any action on restricting what people can say. But the Myanmar example shows what can happen when speech is allowed unabated, when it's acted on as truth, with no official checks in place.
Hopefully, Facebook's new measures will ensure more safety this time around - while the election could also provide key lessons for how to improve such moving forward.