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Zuckerberg barely talked about Facebook’s biggest global problem

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg cut an awkward figure this week as he appeared at highly anticipated congressional hearings, looking visibly uncomfortable in a navy suit rather than his trademark hoodie usual. His behavior caused a lot of laughter on social media, but the real attention was focused on two things: data company Cambridge Analytica and so-called Russian trolls.

According to a transcript of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees, Russia was mentioned 38 times and Cambridge Analytica 72 times as of Tuesday. The next day, as the House Energy and Commerce Committee took its turn, Russia was mentioned 34 times, Cambridge Analytica 50 times.

But Facebook’s thorniest global problem is the site’s misuse and abuse in countries outside North America or Western Europe. Facebook is not just about privacy in these countries: in some cases, lives are literally at stake. These problems, however, have gone almost unnoticed on Capitol Hill.

Think of it this way: Many Americans think it only took 90 bored social media consultants in St. Petersburg to help convince voters to turn to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Now imagine that which could happen if something similar happened in one of the many countries where Facebook is synonymous with the Internet itself.

In these countries, individuals and groups – and even the state itself – may have an interest in spreading false information to inflame domestic tensions. And because many of them are smaller, poorer countries, they are almost insignificant to Facebook’s business model and receive little attention from its headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

There are already many concrete examples. The most obvious case is Myanmar (also called Burma), a Southeast Asian country with a population of just under 53 million and whose gross domestic product per capita is only one-fiftieth that of the United States. Burma emerged from decades of military dictatorship in 2011, but has since been plagued by ethnic tensions. In 2017, a violent military crackdown caused more than 600,000 mostly Muslim members of the Rohingya minority to flee to Bangladesh, leaving an unknown number of people dead.

Zeynep Tufekci tweeted: “This one annoys me the most. Facebook had no excuse for being so careless about Myanmar. Here I am tweeting about this IN 2013. PEOPLE HAVE DELETED FACEBOOK DURING YEARS OF BEING PRO-ACTIVE IN BURMA/MYANMAR. Now he’s hiring dozens of people.”. This is a historic wrong.”

Civil society and human rights organizations say Facebook has inadvertently played a key role in spreading hate speech, stoking tensions between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. These groups shared a presentation with key senators this week, aimed at showing how Facebook has been slow to deal with hate speech and misinformation on its platform, even after repeated attempts to flag dangerous content.

Zuckerberg did not mention Myanmar in his prepared remarks this week, but he was asked about it. On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vt., the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, highlighted a recent comment by U.N. investigators that Facebook played a role “in inciting possible genocide” and said asked why the company took so long to eliminate the deaths. threats against a Muslim journalist.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also addressed the plight of the Rohingya in another question Tuesday. The next day, there was only a passing mention of Myanmar.

Zuckerberg’s responses to questions about Myanmar suggest he was sincerely concerned about Facebook’s role in the country. “What is happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we must do more,” Zuckerberg admitted to Leahy, using another name for Burma. But, as the Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell noted, there has been more talk about pro-Trump YouTube stars Diamond and Silk than about a potential genocide halfway around the world.

Meanwhile, other countries facing similar issues with Facebook were not mentioned at all. On Monday, a number of activists and independent media professionals in Vietnam published their own open letter to Zuckerberg, complaining about account suspensions in the country. “Without a nuanced approach, Facebook risks enabling and being complicit in government censorship,” the Vietnamese groups said.

In some ways, the Facebook problems highlighted in Vietnam and Myanmar may seem distinct: one concerns content that is too easily removed, and the other concerns that content remains up for too long. But at the heart of the problem is the same criticism: Facebook doesn’t pay attention to small countries.

In Sri Lanka, Facebook’s alleged inaction in the face of the spread of anti-Muslim hate speech even led the government to temporarily block the website in March. “(Facebook) would take three or four months to respond,” Harin Fernando, Sri Lanka’s minister of telecommunications and digital infrastructure, told BuzzFeed News. “We were upset. During this incident, we had no alternative: we had to shut down Facebook.”

BuzzFeed News tweeted: “Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka predate the advent of social media.

“But we spoke to Muslims who say that once Facebook became extremely popular in the country, especially among the younger generation, they saw anti-Muslim stories amplified in ways never seen before .”

Such drastic measures are clearly not ideal – in fact, they raise their own questions about censorship and free speech. But Facebook’s inability to tackle real-world problems, either because of language barriers or a lack of knowledge of local contexts, is a common criticism around the world.

To his credit, Zuckerberg recognized the need to hire more people with local language skills and work with civic organizations to quickly identify potential problems. “The definition of hate speech or things that can be racially coded to incite violence is very language specific, and we can’t do it just with English speakers for people around the world,” a- he declared this week.

Facebook’s CEO even appeared to suggest Wednesday that his company was working to remove hate speech like that identified in Myanmar within 24 hours — a passing comment that many organizations noted with hope.

But the big question is how to achieve this on Facebook’s gargantuan scale. The company has about 25,000 employees but about 2 billion or more daily users. Facebook may need to hire thousands more people to truly tackle global problems. It’s no wonder that Zuckerberg highlighted the role that artificial intelligence could play in helping solve these problems within five or ten years.

Although many would like Facebook to run faster, such proposals are likely good news for many Facebook users and advocacy groups. But for corrupt governments and other groups that have worked with them – including consulting groups such as Cambridge Analytica – this could mean that their ability to spread hatred and division will no longer be a Facebook feature, but a bug .

© The Washington Post 2018


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