Facebook official who oversees the news feed says his team loses sleep over the site’s alleged role in Myanmar ‘ethnic cleansing’

Adam Mosseri.

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Adam Mosseri.
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Getty

  • Workers at Facebook reportedly “lose sleep” over the use of their platform to spread hate speech.
  • The Facebook executive who oversees the newsfeed algorithm said addressing such content was one of his team’s biggest challenges.
  • Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has expressed reservations about cracking down on speech.

Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of product management, said that Facebook’s contribution to ongoing violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar caused his team distress and was something they struggled to address.

Mosseri said the situation in Myanmar, from where more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims fled since August, was “deeply concerning in a lot of different ways” during a recent interview on Slate’s technology podcast, If Then.

Mosseri manages the team that oversees the algorithm that controls what people see in their Facebook news feeds. He said real-world violence could be one of the “most concerning and severe negative consequences of any platform.”

“Connecting the world isn’t always going to be a good thing,” he said on the podcast. “We’re trying to take the issue seriously, but we lose some sleep over this.”

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village, September 2, 2017.

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Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village, September 2, 2017.
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Thomson Reuters

“It’s important for us to remember that technology isn’t naturally a good or a bad thing. It’s sort of agnostic and it’s how technology’s used that can be either good or bad,” Mosseri said.

Facebook typically works with third-party fact-checkers, but that approach doesn’t work in Myanmar because, as far as the company is aware, there are no groups to fill that role in the country, Mosseri said. The company has instead focused on identifying “bad actors” and enforcing its community standards and terms of service to “address the proliferation of some problematic content.”

“Real-world harm and what’s happening on the ground in that part of the world is actually one of the most concerning things for us and something that we talk about on a regular basis,” Mosseri said.

Mosseri’s comments came in response to a question about UN investigators saying Facebook played a role in spreading hate speech in Myanmar.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said social media has “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.”

Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh on their way to the refugee camps, October 19, 2017.

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Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh on their way to the refugee camps, October 19, 2017.
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REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres estimated at the end of last year that at least 9,000 Rohingya Muslims had been killed in the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations.”

Many of those who fled Myanmar have reported rapes and executions carried out by Myanmar security forces.

The Myanmar government has denied all charges, though in January the military admitted involvement in the killing of 10 Rohingya.

“Everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar,” said UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee, adding that while Facebook had helped the impoverished country, it had also been used to spread hate speech.

“We know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebooks and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities,” she said.

The information Facebook gathers on its users and how the company uses that information has garnered increased attention in recent days, in the wake of revelations that British data company Cambridge Analytica illicitly obtained information from as many as 50 million Facebook profiles by abusing Facebook’s data-sharing features.

On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Recode he felt “fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California at an office, making content policy decisions for people around the world.”

“A lot of the most sensitive issues that we faced today are conflicts between our real values, right? Freedom of speech and hate speech and offensive content,” Zuckerberg said. “Where is the line, right? And the reality is that different people are drawn to different places, we serve people in a lot of countries around the world, a lot of different opinions on that.”