Whether we like it or not, Facebook has become one of the world’s foremost communication medium. It connects over 2 billion people across the world, more than any other service, it disseminates more news than any other social media platform, whether factually accurate or not, and it supports more political and social organisation than any other internet tool.
And to hear Mark Zuckerberg talk about it, you’d think Facebook were not too thrilled about it all. Sure, raking in billions of dollars every year in advertising profits is all well and good, but the moment your platform seems to have substantial political consequences in the real world just by being what it is and operating in the way that it does, people get all sorts of “pretty crazy ideas” about how you might be responsible for real life political developments, and therefore properly accountable to real life democratic political processes. And we all hate it when politicians take a specific interest in our business, don’t we?
Fortunately, the Silicon Valley tech oligarchy are not yet completely beyond reach, and whether genuine or not, they are still wedded at least to the narrative of being good citizens: so Mark Zuckerberg has, in the face of mounting evidence, is said to have conceded that the crazy idea that Facebook enabled the broad dissemination of Russian propaganda and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election in the United States was true after all. And that Facebook has a moral responsibility to prevent this happening again in the future.
If Facebook has indeed suffered this moral awakening they say they have, I am sure they will rectify their content policies in MyanmarDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The measure of Mr Zuckerberg’s sincerity, however, will be how proactively he pursues this moral responsibility he now accepts his platform has. Bending to the will of the US Congress is not exactly an act of bravery or initiative. However big Facebook may be, it is not yet beyond the reach of the American government.
Similarly, when Facebook was supposedly being proactive in removing fake accounts during the German election in September, that is little more than good business sense: Germany is the de facto leader of the European Union, and neither Germany nor the EU itself are the least bit shy about clipping the wings of large American corporates when they overstep their bounds.
But how will Facebook act when its moral responsibilities and their business interests are not quite so nicely aligned? The most illustrative example is Facebook’s response to the ongoing genocide in Myanmar.
As with all genocides, the current campaign waged by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the west of the country requires a substantial campaign of dehumanization and misinformation.
Even the citizens of a country that has been brutalized by decades of harsh military rule tend to get a bit queasy about mass murder and ethnic cleansing, even if these are directed towards a minority for whom they have little affection. In order that the actions of the military are tolerated as justified, the minority needs to be painted as an imminent existential threat to the state and the safety of its citizens.
Much of the dehumanization and disinformation campaign is supposedly happening on Facebook. So now that Facebook has accepted that it has a moral responsibility to intervene and suppress false and hateful content, Facebook is acting to curb these excesses, right? Wrong.
Also read: The myth of a military coup in Myanmar
Buddhist nationalist hate speech egging on the Myanmar army is flowing freely on Facebook. And Facebook is reportedly censoring the victims, preventing them from reporting what is happening to their lives from their point of view and preventing the international community from getting a clear picture of all the ongoing abuses.
To be fair to Facebook, they have only discovered their conscience and accepted the moral responsibilities that come from being a global platform in the last couple of months. And genocides in countries most of their programmers could not locate on a map will not have been at the forefront of their minds.
Plus, there is no real political pressure in their core Western markets for them to stand up against the perpetrators of this genocide, and those who give them ideological backing. But if Facebook has indeed suffered this moral awakening they say they have, I am sure they will rectify their content policies in Myanmar.
Even if they won’t get around to doing it before the genocide is complete and there will be no Rohingya left in Myanmar.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.