Facebook is silencing Rohingya activists based in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and in Western countries, the Daily Beast reports. According to the report, Facebook has been removing posts documenting incidents of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, and these Facebook users are frequently having their accounts suspended or taken down.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority in Burma who have faced extraordinary persecution from the Buddhist majority. The Rohingya, among others, are not even allowed to vote in Burmese elections, though E.U. observers still praise the “transparency” and the “credibility” of the country’s elections to date.
The violence has been intensifying in recent weeks. A top U.N. official described a renewed offensive by the Burmese military as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Residents attempting to flee the violence have allegedly been encircled and told by local Buddhists to “leave or we will kill you all.”
Why Facebook would feel the need to censor this behavior is unclear considering many world leaders with notorious human rights abusing relationships, such as the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have publicly spoken out against the violence currently taking place. Boris Johnson is the same man who said that if the U.K. didn’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia — currently waging a war of aggression in Yemen rife with banned munitions and criminal acts — someone else would.
Despite this open condemnation of what is taking place in Burma right now, Facebook has decided to censor individual users who attempt to bring to light the true horror of what’s happening on the ground.
Users shared with the Daily Beast screenshots of posts that Facebook had removed because they did not “follow the Facebook Community Standards.” Some posts concerned military activity in Burma’s Rakhine State, including one from a user who noted that the Burmese military was flying helicopters over the area. Another post about the Burmese military burning down a Rohingya Hamlet (a settlement traditionally smaller than a village) was also removed.
After the Facebook user in question posted specifically about military atrocities taking place, Facebook froze his account and threatened to permanently disable it. The user now uses Twitter, instead, but his reach is limited.
Another user who faced the same censorship opened a fresh account with a Burmese pseudonym and identified as a Buddhist instead, and this new account has remained active so far.
Facebook is even removing posts that are poetic in nature and designed to educate others about what is taking place.
Even a poem — now translated into English — was taken down by Facebook for purportedly breaching its guidelines. You read that correctly. Facebook is removing poetry:
A while, a minute, a finger’s snap
In this is too short period,
All the earned wealth of years—
All are destroyed within this too short period.
What should we save? a ration?
What should we save? dignity?
Run for my life, save my child?
I don’t know what should I do.
I had to run away with whatever I could take
Until I fell.
I was tired, and I looked back.
Our homes were being swallowed by fire.
We build shelter wherever we can.
Though it doesn’t block the rain or the sun’s rays,
The elders protect the children from Myanmar’s armed forces.
Parents want to protect their children.
Parents want to feed their children.
A parent’s love and kindness are beyond comparison.
But plates are empty.
One other user, based in Canada, has had his account shut down ten times over posts about Burmese ethnic cleansing. Even one blogger who is regularly cited by Al-Jazeera has been met with a variety of threats and hostility for posting about what is happening to the Rohingya population.
According to the Daily Beast, a Facebook representative, Ruchika Budhraja, said the following in response:
“We want Facebook to be a place where people can share responsibly, and we work hard to strike the right balance between enabling expression while providing a safe and respectful experience…That’s why we have Community Standards, which outline what type of sharing is allowed on Facebook and what type of content may be reported to us and removed. Anyone can report content to us if they think it violates our standards. In response to the situation in Myanmar, we are carefully reviewing content against our Community Standards.”
This isn’t the latest scandal involving Facebook’s tendency to censor or promote unsavory topics. Last week, ProPublica revealed that Facebook sold ads tailored to “Jew haters.” The Daily Beast also previously reported that so-called Russian front groups used Facebook to organize anti-refugee rallies.
According to the Daily Beast, Burmese people rely on Facebook in the same way Westerners rely on email accounts. Facebook is essentially the internet for people in some parts of the world, meaning this type of censorship can be life-threatening.
Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, told the Daily Beast that there may be a targeted campaign in Burma to report Rohingya accounts to Facebook with the aim of getting them shut down. Whether or not Facebook merely responds to the reports or is actively complicit in attempting to silence accounts that post them is unclear.
Either way, what is clear is that Facebook’s current censorship policies are a dangerous tool, easily subject to abuse to the detriment of people who need social media the most in order to tell their stories.