Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, announced yesterday that it would ban all Myanmar-military controlled businesses from its platforms, the latest in a series of restrictions aimed at the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw.
Since the coup in February, the U.S. tech giant has blocked all entities linked to the military from advertising on its platforms, but this has now been extended to the dense mesh of economic enterprises that fund the army.
“We’re taking this latest action based on extensive documentation by the international community of these businesses’ direct role in funding the Tatmadaw’s ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Myanmar,” Rafael Frankel, Meta’s Pacific director of public policy for emerging countries, Asia Pacific, said in a statement.
Frankel said that the military’s network of economic interests was “not always possible to definitively determine,” and was using extensive 2019 report by the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar on the Tatmadaw’s sprawling business empire.
Frankel told Reuters that the firm had already taken down over 100 accounts, pages, and groups linked to military-controlled businesses. “Our team continues to monitor the situation on the ground in Myanmar and we will continue to take any action necessary to keep our community safe,” he said in the statement.
While the move was welcomed by human rights activists, many of whom have long lobbied for stricter actions to restrict the military’s use of Facebook, some pointed to the suspicious nature of the timing. Facebook’s announcement came a day after a group of Rohingya refugees announced they were suing Meta for more than $150 billion for what they say was the company’s failure to stop hateful posts by the Myanmar military and its supporters that incited violence against the mostly Muslim minority group.
On December 6, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit in a California court claiming Facebook’s arrival in Myanmar helped spread hate speech, misinformation, and incitement to violence that “amounted to a substantial cause, and eventual perpetuation of, the Rohingya genocide.”
Facebook has long faced scrutiny for its role in Myanmar, where it arrived in a flash in 2014, with the sudden arrival of cheap 3G cellphone connections. Since then, it has attracted mounting criticisms for its role in providing the military and its ultranationalist allies a conduit for hate speech directed against Muslims in general, and the Rohingya in particular.
In March 2018, Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, had reported that that social media platforms (of which Facebook was by far the most common) had played a “determining role” in the violence against the Rohingya, and had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict” in the country. The New York Times later reported that Myanmar military personnel had “turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing.”
While Facebook has recognized the deleterious impact that it has had in Myanmar, and taken a series of steps to ameliorate it (especially since the coup), its actions and disclosures always seem to lag a step behind the demands of activists working on Myanmar. For instance, it was only in August 2018, a year after the military’s brutal “clearance operation” drove more than 600,000 Rohingya civilians into Bangladesh, that it got around to removing the Facebook pages of Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other top brass.
Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK, said in a statement yesterday that Facebook had “resisted significant pressure to take down military companies’ pages” since before the February coup. “Facebook have known for years these military companies finance human rights violations,” he said. “Now, within hours of legal cases being filed regarding their role in the genocide of the Rohingya, Facebook decide to take down military company pages.”
Its actions have also seemingly been tempered by a corporate secrecy reflex. In September a U.S. federal judge ordered Facebook to hand over records related to the accounts of military commanders that it shut down in 2018. The judge’s ruling criticized the company for refusing to provide the records to countries pursuing a genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, saying its lack of cooperation “would compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.” (The ruling was reportedly voided by a U.S. District Court judge today.)
Meta’s removal of military-linked companies is an important step in the closing off of its platforms to the Tatmadaw and its allies. But the partial nature of its actions continue to demonstrate that the company’s commitment to public safety and human rights is tangled up with its allergy to public scrutiny and clouded by the sheer difficulty of vetting the massive flood of Burmese-language material on the platform.