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For months, Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., has been in crisis mode, furiously attempting to contain the damage stemming from its role in last year’s presidential campaign. The company has mounted an all-out defense campaign ahead of this week’s congressional hearings on election interference in 2016, hiring three outside communications firms, taking out full-page newspaper ads, and mobilizing top executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, to beat back accusations that it failed to prevent Russia from manipulating the outcome of the election.
No other predicament in Facebook’s 13-year history has generated this kind of four-alarm response. But while the focus on Russia is understandable, Facebook has been much less vocal about the abuse of its services in other parts of the world, where the stakes can be much higher than an election.
This past week, my colleagues at The Times reported on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar that has been subjected to brutal violence and mass displacement. Violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumors have gone viral on Facebook, including many shared by official government and military accounts.
The information war in Myanmar illuminates a growing problem for Facebook. The company successfully connected the world to a constellation of real-time communication and broadcasting tools, then largely left it to deal with the consequences.
“In a lot of these countries, Facebook is the de facto public square,” said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Because of that, it raises really strong questions about Facebook needing to take on more responsibility for the harms their platform has contributed to.”
In Myanmar, the rise in anti-Rohingya sentiment coincided with a huge boom in social media use that was partly attributable to Facebook itself. In 2016, the company partnered with MTP, the state-run telecom company, to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a limited suite of internet services, including Facebook, that can be used without counting toward a cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed to more than 30 million today from 2 million in 2014.
“We work hard to educate people about our services, highlight tools to help them protect their accounts and promote digital literacy,” said Debbie Frost, a Facebook spokeswoman. “To be more effective in these efforts, we are working with civil society, safety partners, and governments — an approach we have found to be particularly important and effective in countries where people are rapidly coming online and experiencing the internet for the first time through a mobile phone.”
In India, where internet use has also surged in recent years, WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned messaging app, has been inundated with rumors, hoaxes and false stories. In May, the Jharkhand region in Eastern India was destabilized by a viral WhatsApp message that falsely claimed that gangs in the area were abducting children. The message incited widespread panic and led to a rash of retaliatory lynchings, in which at least seven people were beaten to death. A local filmmaker, Vinay Purty, told the Hindustan Times that many of the local villagers simply believed the abduction myth was real, since it came from WhatsApp.
“Everything shared on the phone is regarded as true,” Mr. Purty said.
In a statement, WhatsApp said, “WhatsApp has made communications cheaper, easier and more reliable for millions of Indians — with all the benefits that brings. Though we understand that some people, sadly, have used WhatsApp to intimidate others and spread misinformation. It’s why we encourage people to report problematic messages to WhatsApp so that we can take action.”
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Facebook is not directly responsible for violent conflict, of course, and viral misinformation is hardly unique to its services. Before social media, there were email hoaxes and urban legends passed from person to person. But the speed of Facebook’s growth in the developing world has made it an especially potent force among first-time internet users, who may not be appropriately skeptical of what they see online.
The company has made many attempts to educate users about the dangers of misinformation. In India and Malaysia, it has taken out newspaper ads with tips for spotting false news. In Myanmar, it has partnered with local organizations to distribute printed copies of its community standards, as well as created educational materials to teach citizens about proper online behavior.
But these efforts, as well-intentioned as they may be, have not stopped the violence, and Facebook does not appear to have made them a top priority. The company has no office in Myanmar, and neither Mr. Zuckerberg nor Ms. Sandberg has made any public statements about the Rohingya crisis.
Correcting misinformation is a thorny philosophical problem for Facebook, which imagines itself as a neutral platform that avoids making editorial decisions. Facebook’s community standards prohibit hate speech and threats, but many harmful viral posts — such as a WhatsApp thread in Southern India that spread false rumors about a government immunization campaign — are neither hateful nor directly threatening, and they wouldn’t be prohibited under Facebook’s community standards as long as they came from authentic accounts. Fighting misinformation is especially difficult on WhatsApp, an app for private messaging, since there is no public information trail to fact-check.
Facebook has argued that the benefits of providing internet access to international users will ultimately outweigh the costs. Adam Mosseri, a Facebook vice president who oversees the News Feed, told a journalism gathering this month, “In the end, I don’t think we as a human race will regret the internet.” Mr. Zuckerberg echoed that sentiment in a 2013 manifesto titled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?,” in which he said that bringing the world’s population online would be “one of the most important things we all do in our lifetimes.”
That optimism may be cold comfort to people in places like South Sudan. Despite being one of the poorest and least-wired countries in the world, with only around 20 percent of its citizens connected to the internet, the African nation has become a hotbed of social media misinformation. As BuzzFeed News has reported, political operatives inside and outside the country have used Facebook posts to spread rumors and incite anger between rival factions, fostering violence that threatens to escalate into a civil war. A United Nations report last year determined that in South Sudan, “social media has been used by partisans on all sides, including some senior government officials, to exaggerate incidents, spread falsehoods and veiled threats, or post outright messages of incitement.”
These are incredibly complex issues, and it may be impossible for Facebook — which is, remember, a technology company, not a global peacekeeping force — to solve them overnight. But as the company’s response to the Russia crisis has proved, it’s capable of acting swiftly and powerfully when it feels its interests are threatened.
Information wars in emerging markets may not represent as big a threat to Facebook’s business as angry lawmakers in Washington. But people are dying, and communities are tearing themselves apart with the tools Facebook has built. That should qualify as an even greater emergency in Menlo Park.