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 normal hoodie. His behavior drew plenty of laughs on social media, but the real attention focused on two things: data firm Cambridge Analytica and alleged Russian trolls.

According to a transcript of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Senate Commerce and Justice Committees, Russia was mentioned 38 times and Cambridge Analytica 72 times on 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 misuse and misuse of the site in countries outside of North America or Western Europe. Facebook isn’t just a privacy issue in these countries — in some cases, literally lives are at stake. These issues, 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 sway voters toward Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Now imagine what might 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 – even the state itself – may have an interest in spreading misinformation to inflame internal tensions. And because many are from 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 is Myanmar (also called Burma), a Southeast Asian nation of just under 53 million people and a gross domestic product per capita barely one-fiftieth that of America. Burma emerged in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship, but has since been rocked by ethnic tensions. In 2017, a violent military crackdown caused more than 600,000 mostly Muslim members of the minority Rohingya group to flee to Bangladesh, killing an unknown number.

zeynep tufekci tweeted “This one drives me the craziest. Facebook had no excuse for being so careless about Myanmar. Here I am tweeting about it IN 2013. PEOPLE HAVE DELETED FACEBOOK FOR YEARS TO BE PROACTIVE IN BURMA/MYANMAR. Now he’s hiring dozens’. It’s a historic wrong.”

Civil society and human rights organizations say Facebook has inadvertently played a key role in spreading hate speech, which has fueled tensions between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. These groups shared a presentation with key senators this week, aimed at showing how slow Facebook has been to deal with hate speech and misinformation on its platform, even after repeated attempts to flag the 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 Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, pointed to a recent comment by U.N. investigators that Facebook had played a role “in inciting possible genocide” and asked why the company took so long to remove the death. threats against a Muslim journalist.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, also invoked 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 suggested he was genuinely concerned about Facebook’s role in the country. “What is happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to 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 of pro-Trump YouTube stars Diamond and Silk than of potential genocide halfway around the world.

Meanwhile, other countries facing similar Facebook issues weren’t 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 complicit in government censorship,” the Vietnamese groups said.

In some ways, the issues with Facebook highlighted in Vietnam and Myanmar may seem distinct – one is about content that gets deleted too easily, and the other is about content that sticks around 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 site in March. “[Facebook] it would take three or four months before we give an answer,” Harin Fernando, Sri Lankan Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure, told BuzzFeed News. “We were upset. In this incident, we had no alternative – we had to shut down Facebook.”

BuzzFeed News tweeted “Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka predate the social network.

“But we’ve spoken to Muslims who say that once Facebook became hugely popular in the country, especially with the younger generation, they saw anti-Muslim stories being amplified in a way that they don’t. ‘had never been before.”

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

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

The Facebook CEO even appeared to suggest on Wednesday that his company was working to remove hate speech like the one identified in Myanmar within 24 hours – a passing comment that many organizations noted hopefully.

But the big question is how to do this on Facebook’s gargantuan scale. The company has around 25,000 employees, but around 2 billion or more daily users. Facebook may need to hire thousands more people to really deal with global issues. It’s no wonder Zuckerberg pointed to the role that artificial intelligence could play in helping solve these problems five or ten years from now.

While many will want Facebook to work faster than that, 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 advisory groups such as Cambridge Analytica – it could mean that their ability to spread hatred and division will no longer be a hallmark of Facebook, but a bug.

© The Washington Post 2018

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