Myanmar activists welcome Zuckerberg's 24-hour target to block hate speech on Facebook

WASHINGTON/YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar civil society groups welcomed a commitment by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to tackle hate speech within 24 hours as the social media giant fights messages inciting violence, but urged it to deploy more resources in the country.

Zuckerberg said on Tuesday his company would step up efforts to block hate messages in Myanmar as he faced questioning by the U.S. Congress about electoral interference and hate speech on the platform.

Facebook has been accused by human rights advocates of not doing enough to weed out hate messages on its social-media network in Myanmar, where it has become a near-ubiquitous communications tool following the opening up of the economy.

In an email, the representatives of several civil society groups in Myanmar hailed the 24-hour timeline as “historic”, but said Facebook had failed to set up an effective mechanism in the country for swifter detection and removal of threatening posts.

“This is a historic commitment from Facebook to a 24-hour review time, and one we have been begging for,” Yangon-based social media analyst Victoire Rio said on Wednesday.

“It is still unclear how they intend to demonstrate that they are meeting these targets...We will continue to monitor them,” said Rio, who was involved in an email exchange between Zuckerberg and civil society groups in Myanmar regarding Facebook’s effectiveness in detecting and curbing hate speech.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state and crossed into Bangladesh since insurgent attacks sparked a security crackdown last August, the United Nations and aid agencies have said.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The United Nations and the United States described the situation as ethnic cleansing, an accusation Myanmar denies.

“What’s happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to do more,” Zuckerberg said during a 5-hour joint hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee.

United Nations officials investigating a possible genocide in Myanmar said last month that Facebook had been a source of anti-Rohingya propaganda.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said in March that social media had played a “determining role” in Myanmar.

“It has ... substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict ... within the public,” he said.

Zuckerberg said Facebook was hiring dozens more Burmese-language speakers to remove threatening content.

“It’s hard to do it without people who speak the local language, and we need to ramp up our effort there dramatically,” he said, adding that Facebook was also asking civil society groups to help identify figures the network needed to ban.

He said a Facebook team would make undisclosed product changes in Myanmar and other countries battling ethnic violence.

But Jes Petersen, chief executive of Yangon-based Phandeeyar, which helped Facebook translate its Burmese-language community standards, said Zuckerberg’s commitment would be too little for a country with nearly 30 million users.

“It is not even close. It will be interesting to see how Facebook meet their 24-hour commitment here - but a mammoth expansion of Burmese-speaking staff is going to be needed.”

Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Yimou Lee; Edited by Damon Darlin and Clarence Fernandez