Why Southeast Asia’s Politics Are Proving a Problem for Facebook
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Southeast Asia awoke to the misuse of social media much before the West.
By John Reed and Hannah Kuchler
The Philippines-based news website Rappler, launched in 2012, was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Facebook’s Instant Articles service, which allowed it to speed up the loading of stories for readers. By 2015 it had added video on Facebook and was reporting triple-digit readership growth as millions of Filipinos began turning to the social-media site as their main source of news.
Then, says Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief executive, “Facebook ran into trouble.” In May 2016, six months before Americans elected Donald Trump, Filipinos voted in their own populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, who, like his U.S. counterpart, relied heavily on social media in his campaign.
Supporters of the new president in Manila began using Facebook accounts to coordinate large-scale verbal attacks on opposition figures, journalists and activists who criticized his brutal crackdown on drugs, which has killed more than 12,000 people since he was elected.
A Rappler investigation into suspicious Facebook activity found that just 26 pro-Duterte accounts, many of them created in the run-up to the election and some of them fake, were being deployed to influence millions of people. Freedom House, the U.S. civil liberties watchdog, and a University of Leeds study subsequently claimed the president’s administration was using paid trolls, something it denies. “I can assure you that there is no budgetary line item for payment of trolls in the social media as far as his administration is concerned,” Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, said in January.
Ressa — who began receiving frequent death and rape threats after Rappler’s critical coverage of Duterte — recalls meeting three of Facebook’s Asia-Pacific executives in Singapore in August 2016 and warning them of the platform’s potential for exploitation by populist groups and leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
“If you don’t watch it, Trump may win,” she recalls saying. “We all laughed.”
Long before Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on how Cambridge Analytica had obtained Facebook data, harvested from 50 million people and allegedly used to target voters in the 2016 U.S. election, activists, journalists and media analysts in southeast Asia were raising the alarm about the weaponization of the social-media website as a tribune for authoritarian leaders and a powerful vector for dangerous hate speech.
This is online state-sponsored hate in many countries.
Maria Ressa, Rappler
In the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar, controversy is now building over Facebook’s outsize role as a forum for news and political discourse in countries where democratic governance has traditionally been weak. With more than 300 million monthly users — roughly half the population of Southeast Asia — the platform wields enormous influence.
“This is online state-sponsored hate in many countries,” Ressa says. “Southeast Asia is extremely vulnerable; our institutions are so weak. They are using the platform to kill all kinds of checks and balances on government.”
In Myanmar, the platform has been used by extremist Buddhists to fan hatred of Muslims and defend the military’s crackdown on minority Rohingyas in western Rakhine state, which has seen some 700,000 people driven from their homes and thousands killed.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen, prime minister since 1985, has used his page, which has 9.7 million followers, as a tool to bypass conventional media, using posts and live events to bolster his image as a man of the people. He has done so even as his regime has shut down a critical newspaper and radio stations and outlawed the main opposition party ahead of elections planned for July.
Yet even critics acknowledge the site has done some good in Vietnam, for instance, where dissidents have used it to promote their causes. Cambodian opposition politicians, who accuse Hun Sen of exploiting Facebook to bolster his legitimacy, say it has been a force for good, as well as bad.
Mu Sochua, deputy head of the Cambodian National Rescue party, who fled the country after Hun Sen’s crackdown, says the platform has “brought about change” and had an impact on democracy, but has also been exploited by Hun Sen and his supporters to “create confusion, mistrust and disruption.”
Many countries around the world, long before the U.S., realized this was a problem.
Clarissa David, University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication
The company has been criticized most heavily for reacting late to complaints in some Southeast Asian countries where delays amount to matters of life and death.
“At least in the U.S., if they get upset, they can call [Facebook founder and chief executive] Mark Zuckerberg to Congress to answer questions; we can’t do this,” says Clarissa David, professor at the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication. “Many countries around the world, long before the U.S., realized this was a problem.”
Although it is questionable whether Facebook can, will or indeed should be held accountable in a court of law for undemocratic politicians and demagogues who exploit it, there is clearly reputational risk to the company from the hateful discourse, propaganda and false news reports shared on the platform.
The International Criminal Court recently opened a preliminary investigation into Duterte’s drug war. The U.S. and U.N. have called Myanmar’s violent expulsion of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
“These are some of the fastest-growing nations in the world in terms of Facebook use,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia with Human Rights Watch. “They [Facebook] have been reaping the rewards of this massive expansion, without taking on any of the responsibilities of doing anything until the pressure comes on.”
Facebook is beginning to acknowledge the problem. “We absolutely see that social media and Facebook amplify humans’ intent, both good and bad,” says Simon Milner, the company’s vice president of policy in Asia-Pacific. “It can do good by promoting democracy, human rights, reporting on events; there’s nothing quite like Facebook for doing that at scale.”
Milner, who recently testified before a Philippines Senate hearing into fake news, adds, “There are also people who want to use our platform for bad: undermining democracy, spreading false news and creating division.”
The criticism of Facebook in Southeast Asia boils down to whether the platform is assisting authoritarian leaders directly or indirectly, and also if the company is creating potential conflicts of interest by entering into infrastructure and other joint venture deals with the same administrations.
“I don’t believe there’s an intent to be politically partisan, but Facebook ends up being a tool of whichever party is in power because they work closely with government,” says David, who previously worked for the Philippines antitrust commission.
In November, Manila — which is seeking tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment — announced a partnership with Facebook to bring ultra-high-speed broadband internet infrastructure to Luzon, the country’s most populous island. Facebook says this deal, the value of which has not been disclosed, predates the Duterte administration.
Another criticism relates to the platform’s policing of hate speech and incitement to violence. Social-media activists argue it is devoting fewer resources to local-language staff in the region than it does in countries such as Germany, which recently passed a law requiring media groups to remove hate speech within a day. Facebook says it has about 1,200 of its 15,000 moderators based in Germany, but they review reports in multiple languages and countries from outside Europe as well.
For tens of millions of people in the region, Facebook arrived at the same time as mobile phones and internet access, and its news feed is the main place they find their information. In the Philippines, mobile phone providers bundle a free, low-data version of Facebook into their prepaid packages, and people who might not have picked up a newspaper before now see news and blog headlines in their feeds. Elsewhere in Asia, China has banned Facebook, and in India the company backed off a “free basics” package after a local backlash.
In Myanmar, Facebook suspended the widely followed page of Wirathu, a monk known for his anti-Muslim jeremiads, in January, 10 months after the country’s state-backed Sangha clerical committee banned him from giving sermons for a year. Facebook says it suspends people if they consistently share content promoting hate. But it did not explain why it had waited so long given that Wirathu was violating community rules.
The company has been quick to take down violent content in other parts of the world where there has been closer scrutiny of its operations. Late last year it said its artificial intelligence was able to remove 99 percent of posts related to Islamist groups such as Isis or al-Qaeda within an hour.
Facebook won’t share any data on its moderation effort in Myanmar.
Victoire Rio, social-media analyst, Yangon
However, social-media analysts in Myanmar say that inflammatory posts in Burmese often remain online for two days or more. The site does not have an office in Myanmar and has come under fire for having too few reviewers who speak Burmese or the country’s minority languages.
“Facebook won’t share any data on its moderation effort in Myanmar, which makes it hard to assess how successful its moderation is, how it has improved and how it compares to other markets,” says Victoire Rio, a Yangon-based social-media analyst. Facebook says it cannot disclose the location of its staff devoted to Southeast Asian countries, to protect individuals working on sensitive topics.
Zuckerberg insisted that the company is paying attention to events in Myanmar. “It’s a real issue,” he told Vox. “We want to make sure that all of the tools that we’re bringing to bear on eliminating hate speech, inciting violence and basically protecting the integrity of civil discussions [in the U.S.], that we’re doing [them] in places like Myanmar as well.”
Across Southeast Asia, Facebook is running “news literacy” programs to encourage people to question what they read. In Myanmar, the company has placed advertisements in newspapers and on Facebook. In the Philippines, it has been working with journalists to help them defend themselves from personal attacks.
The company says that it follows local laws, which it says is easy when it needs to remove content inciting violence, but harder in cases where politicians ask it to take down posts.
“[With] political content, we have to be much more careful,” Milner says. “We often push back, and we sometimes have to do that facing threats.”
Yet critics say its response so far has been inadequate when measured against its power in the region.
“It comes down to whether Facebook is a public or a private platform,” says David, the media professor. She points to the blurring of the public and the private in the case of Esther Margaux (“Mocha”) Uson, the former singer and dancer whom the president named as his assistant secretary for communications last year, and who uses her popular Facebook blog, with 5.6 million followers, to attack critics of the administration.
Duterte remains popular with a large majority of Filipinos, and his opponents say that his administration’s social-media effort — dominated by Facebook but including the Google-owned YouTube — is playing a crucial role in bolstering that popularity and support, including in the key constituency of overseas workers.
Rappler, Ressa’s website, is faring less well: It faces a series of legal challenges from securities, tax and other authorities. Facebook is doing somewhat better: It puts its number of users in the Philippines at 63 million out of a population of 104 million. In the recent Senate “fake news” hearing, the company spoke of the work it was doing on ranking stories in its news feed and identifying false reports. But Ressa is skeptical that the company will tackle the bigger problems.
“If Facebook wanted to solve this, they could, but doing it would curb growth,” she says. “Troll armies have real engagement.”
Additional reporting by Grace Ramos in Manila.
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