As hate speech spread in Myanmar, US ambassador says Facebook was hard to reach

A man checks Facebook on his smart phone in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — As United States ambassador to Myanmar from 2012-2016, Derek Mitchell witnessed firsthand the rise of anti-Muslim hate speech circulating on the internet — and in Myanmar, the internet is virtually synonymous with one social networking platform: Facebook.

In the first years of his post, Mitchell saw that the hateful, violence-inciting messages that intolerant monks had previously distributed on DVDs at temples were now going online. As the country’s telecommunications industry grew, those messages spread farther and more quickly on Facebook than they had through physical copies, moving from the periphery to the mainstream.

“In 2012, you had issues in Rakhine state, but by 2013, you started to see it in the middle of the country, and we had to catch up to it, to this blast of intolerance,” Mitchell said.

Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its handling of the misinformation, fake accounts, and personal information that circulates through the platform. In March, United Nations investigators determined that social media — and Facebook, in particular — played a “determining role” in sowing division in Myanmar. In April, U.S. lawmakers questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook’s efforts to address abuse on its platform, and Senator Patrick Leahy described Facebook in Myanmar as, “a breeding ground for hate speech against Rohingya refugees.”

The former ambassador said it was a priority of his to try and tackle this dangerous undercurrent of rumor and vitriol, but one potential key ally in the fight was difficult to get hold of. Mitchell could never seem to get a meeting with anyone from Facebook, despite their network’s ubiquitous presence in the country and the increasingly dangerous role their platform was playing in helping broadcast divisive rumors across the emerging, fragile democracy.

“I tried to meet with them, and I couldn't get a meeting. I met with many others,” Mitchell said.

The U.S. embassy had an information and communications technology council that included tech heavyweights Google, Cisco, and Intel — “first time ever, I think, anywhere, we had gotten these companies together to work on how do we promote an open society through these technologies, responsible use of these technologies,” Mitchell said. “It was very productive. But Facebook wasn't part of it.”

“And I used to ask my team, I want to meet Facebook, and I could never get a meeting,” he said. “I wasn't sure if it was my team who didn't follow up, but they were very good, so I think they probably did. I just didn't get a meeting, as I remember.”

The death toll from Myanmar’s military crackdown against the Rohingya is contested and difficult to verify. Government figures have put the figure at 400, while outside investigators estimate a conservative death toll of at least 6,700 and likely significantly higher. Close to 1 million Rohingya have fled their homes since the crackdown began.

“I wanted to figure out ... how do we get Facebook's name out there to brand themselves in terms of digital literacy, of responsible speech, of positive speech, of identifying rumors.”

— Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar

Facebook representatives told Devex that they are unaware of any attempts by the ambassador to contact them during the 2012-2016 period, though they said they were in frequent contact with the State Department at that time, including the team responsible for human rights. Facebook also cited a Community Standards launch in Myanmar in 2015, where they say representatives from the U.S. embassy were present, and they note they began engagement with the U.S. ambassador last year — after Mitchell had left his post.

“About eight months ago, they reached out to me,” Mitchell, who will take over as president of the National Democratic Institute in September, told Devex. He described a conference call with Facebook representatives — “but not the [most] senior ... leadership.” 

“I suggested that they make Burma a flagship for addressing this question. Try it out there first, because Zuckerberg was getting hammered in his [U.S. congressional] hearing about Burma specifically. And he was saying, ‘there's a new responsible Facebook that we're promoting.’ Great, take your new responsible Facebook and let's sit together and try and make it work in Burma,” Mitchell recalled proposing to the Facebook team.

“I haven't gotten traction,” Mitchell added.

Asked what he would have told Facebook had he had an opportunity to meet with them during his time as ambassador in Myanmar, Mitchell said he would have asked them to leverage the power of their brand in the country to help people become better consumers of information.

“I wanted to figure out ... how do we get Facebook's name out there to brand themselves in terms of digital literacy, of responsible speech, of positive speech, of identifying rumors,” he said.

The supply of bad information will always be there, Mitchell said, but companies such as Facebook have an opportunity to help raise the quality of information that people are likely to demand. In Myanmar, the population was already somewhat attuned to the military government’s misinformation practices, and that helped people to reject messages of hate in the lead up to the 2015 election, Mitchell said.

“That was a good antibody against this disease. But that disease is still out there ... that fear is very much there in that society, which gets to the whole history of the country and the geography of the country,” he said.

Facebook was not the only tech giant Mitchell has had difficulty engaging on the problem of hate speech in Myanmar.

He had met Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google and Alphabet, and began to wonder if Google’s offshoot problem-solving branch Jigsaw — previously known as Google Ideas — could help tackle Myanmar’s hate speech problem. Mitchell said he wrote to Jigsaw Chief Executive Officer Jared Cohen “several times” to ask, ‘Can you deal with hate speech? Can you deal with negative speech and misinformation? Can you figure out a way?’”

“And they weren't interested in doing it,” he said. Cohen did not respond to an inquiry from Devex in time for publication.

Update, July 18: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen as “Eric Cohen.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.