On Monday, Facebook removed 52 Pages, 19 accounts, and permanently banned 20 individuals and groups from the platform. Unlike the company’s somewhat similar announcement a week prior, this decision wasn’t related to some nefarious network of foreign “bad actors” looking to game the political system. The accounts and individuals in question hailed from Myanmar and used Facebook to circulate toxic rhetoric and propaganda that fueled a horrific bout of ethnic persecution and violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population.
Among those banned from the platform was Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the Myanmar’s military (also known as the Tatmadaw) which holds a considerable amount of power in the country; and the military’s primary television network, which was used to spread disinformation and sow confusion around who exactly was responsible for the violence. The decision marked a notable first for Facebook, which has never explicitly banned or removed a military or state actor from its platform before. Though some have already begun to laud Facebook for such a “proactive” move, the decision was, if anything, late.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter long positioned themselves as bastions of free speech and democratic debate, in large part because it let them put zero effort into moderating what their users were doing. It’s still the reason Jack Dorsey claims Twitter will never ban Donald Trump and countless others: Twitter shouldn’t have the power to silence a public figure in the “modern-day town square.” Facebook in particular loves to describe itself as an essential global entity, more akin to a sovereign nation entrusted with ensuring election integrity around the world (which is a thing it actually does, mind you) than a mere social media platform. Calls for regulation have so far made these companies double down and cast themselves as more important than ever.
Facebook’s announcement came on the heels of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s August 24 on Myanmar, which declared Myanmar’s military responsible for crimes against humanity, and said that Senior-General Hlaing — along with various other high-ranking military officials in Myanmar — should be investigated for genocide, among other crimes. Facebook wrote on Monday that its ban of the named individuals was spurred on by a desire to “prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions.”
As Facebook itself even cops to in the opening paragraph of its statement (“we were too slow to act,” it said), it’s all too little, too late. Facebook has been aware of its role in spreading hate and amplifying calls to violence within the country for a while now — banning a few dozen officials listed by name in a report after the fact hardly makes up for the years of deadly inaction.
The UNHRC report specifically mentioned Facebook by name — which is likely another first for the tech company, albeit a slightly less celebratory one — describing the platform as “a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” especially in newly-online areas like Myanmar where the site has become the de facto internet for most users. “Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective,” noted the report. “The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined.”
The report noted that Facebook also failed to provide the Council with “country-specific data about the spread of hate speech on its platform,” which seems to contradict the company’s claim that it’s actively dedicated to countering hate speech and becoming less poisonous to civil society.