Amid international accusations that Myanmar’s military is engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya Muslim minority, Facebook designated a Rohingya insurgent group a dangerous organisation and ordered moderators to delete any content by or praising it.
The decision, which the company said was made after an internal assessment of the group, came shortly before activists began complaining that the company was censoring posts about the brutal military campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, reports the Guardian.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was placed on Facebook’s ‘dangerous organization’ list in recent weeks, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed. The company’s community standards ban posts by or in support of such organizations, which it defines as groups engaged in terrorism, organized violence or crime, mass murder, or organized hate.
Facebook refused to comment on whether any of the other groups involved in the conflict that has seen more than 400,000 Rohingya flee the country have been designated as dangerous, or had accounts or posts deleted.
Myanmar’s military, which the top United Nations human rights official has accused of engaging in a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, has a verified Facebook page with 2.6m followers. The government has numerous other official pages as well, and human rights observers have raised concerns that posts by Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel peace prize recipient, are stoking anti-Rohingya fervour.
Myanmar’s government declared Arsa a terrorist organization on 25 August, after the group coordinated attacks on police posts in the western state of Rakhine, killing 12 members of the security forces. Facebook said it did not make its decision at the request of the government, and that the decision was based solely on the group’s alleged violent activity, not its political aims.
But the social media company’s decision was welcomed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, who shared a message from Facebook regarding the designation on his own Facebook page on 26 August. Htay’s post urging his followers to report pro-Arsa content to Facebook was shared nearly 7,000 times.
ARSA emerged last October and calls itself a freedom fighter organization on behalf of the approximately 1.1m Rohingya living in Rakhine. Rohingya Muslims are despised by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and treated as stateless, undocumented immigrants by the government. They are widely described as the most persecuted people on earth.
ARSA claimed on Twitter that the attacks were a legitimate step to defend the rights of Rohingya against repression by the Myanmar military. But the attacks triggered clearance operations by the Burmese army that have resulted in a refugee crisis.
The top UN human rights official denounced the military’s actions as ‘clearly disproportionate’ to the Arsa attack. Rohingya arriving in Bangladeshi refugee camps have described a savage military campaign against Rohingya villages, with arson attacks, rapes, shootings, and land mines.
Facebook’s acknowledgment that it banned Arsa comes amid criticism from Rohingya refugees, journalists, and observers that the company is censoring reports of human rights violations against the minority group.
I believe [Facebook] is trying to suppress freedom [of] expression and dissent by colluding with the genocidaires in Myanmar regime, the activist and journalist Mohammad Anwar told the Guardian. Anwar, whose allegations of censorship were first reported by the Daily Beast, shared screenshots of numerous posts that had been removed by Facebook for violating community standards. Several of the posts were comprised only of text, he said, and described military operations against Rohingya villages in Rakhine.
The Kuala Lumpur-based journalist, who works for the site RohingyaBlogger.com, said that his reports come from a network of 45 correspondents and citizen journalists in Rakhine.
Facebook said some of Anwar’s posts had been deleted in error but that the mistakes were not the result of moderators confusing support for the Rohingya with support for ARSA.
In response to the situation in Myanmar, we are only removing graphic content when it is shared to celebrate the violence, versus raising awareness and condemning the action, a Facebook spokeswoman, Ruchika Budhraja, said in a statement. We are carefully reviewing content against our Community Standards and, when alerted to errors, quickly resolving them and working to prevent them from happening again.
While Facebook has long banned certain content for containing graphic violence or nudity, the company amended its standards in October 2016 following an international outcry when it censored a well-known image of a naked child fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. Faced with intense criticism of its role as a censor, Facebook decided to allow graphic content that is newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest.
But several Rohingya Facebook users complained to the Guardian that the censorship continued.
Mohammed Rafique, a Rohingya activist based in Ireland, told the Guardian that he was temporarily banned from Facebook on 28 August for posting ‘photos and videos of torture and killings in the Rohingya villages’ on his Facebook page.
Although I am still receiving new photos and videos of the ongoing anti-Rohingya violence, I am not posting them on my Facebook any more, fearing Facebook action like suspension of my account, he said.
Jafar Arakane, a Rohingya refugee based in Saudi Arabia, runs Arakan Times, a Rohingya community YouTube channel with an associated Facebook page. Arakan is an alternative name for Rakhine.
As soon as the violence broke out in Arakan last month, from day one, we began broadcasting our news on YouTube and remained active with posts on our channel’s Facebook page. We reported how the Rakhines youths actively supported the violence helping the military in arson and murder of the Rohingyas. Through our Facebook page we reached tens of thousands of our viewers, Arakane said.
His Facebook page was suspended on 27 August, he said.
Ko Ko Linn, a Rohingya community leader living in Bangladesh, said his work to inform the world about human rights abuses against the Rohingya had been ‘badly hampered’ by Facebook suspending his account on 12 September. Linn, who heads the Bangladesh chapter of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, said he had been posting ‘videos and photos which showed the brutal massacre of Rohingya civilians in Arakan’.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said the Rohingya were forced to get the word out about their cause on Facebook and Twitter because the few media outlets in Myanmar that exercise independence in reporting on the situation in Rakhine face threats of boycotts and retaliation.
Not many media outlets in the country, he said, were willing to take the risk of alienating their readers, advertisers, and in some cases, their staff, by calling out the Burmese government for the campaign of ethnic cleansing they are involved in.
Of course, the problem with social media is that their policing mechanisms can be used for harassment by those willing to mount a concerted campaign of filing complaints against specific Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, Robertson added.
We’ve seen an explosion of Rakhine and Burman nationalists using Twitter, retweeting hateful messages and gory images, so it would not surprise me at all if some of those nationalists, using bot accounts and pages apparently set up en masse, are now going on the attack against Rohingya on Facebook.