John Oliver explores Facebook’s role in Myanmar on Last Week Tonight


Facebook has gotten a lot of criticism for its lack of action in regard to American politics. But what about its role in the ongoing violence in Myanmar?

Today, let’s take a look at Facebook. You likely know it as a well of lost hours, of time wasted as you scroll through a curated collection of other people’s lives and then try to create a post that shows you as happy, mysterious, or just plain interesting as everyone else.

There’s much to be said about the kind of false front provided by Facebook and other social media platforms. You can also get a good undergraduate thesis out of the social implications of Facebook and its use in our modern cultures. If you’re feeling especially topical, then you could also talk about the role of Facebook in our recent elections. Certainly, Russian agents seem to have used the platform to capitalize on our tendency towards confirmation bias – that is, hearing what we want to hear.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg has pushed the feel-good side of Facebook. You know: connecting with other people, expanding your worldview, vaguely making peoples’ lives better because you hit the friend button, yada, yada. Then again, Facebook has never been known for its foresight and careful thinking.

Zuckerberg seems to be awfully casual about making mistakes – “move fast and break things” was an early, if reconsidered, mantra at the company. Even if those mistakes engender confusion and awkward situations, future complications are infrequently considered.

Yet, that is not all that is wrong with Facebook. On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver instead focused on Facebook’s international role. Even more specifically, he turned the show’s gaze towards one country: Myanmar.

Myanmar and Facebook

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is moving to a civilian government after decades of militaristic rule. As the country has opened up, so, too, have ways of communicating. More and more Burmese people are getting access to the internet and cell phones. Frequently, those phones come with Facebook pre-installed as an app. Now, “Facebook” and “internet” are so often conflated that Burmese people use the terms interchangeably.

Ubiquity doesn’t mean that everyone accepts Facebook’s presence, however. One teacher interviewed called Facebook a “toilet”. Oliver, however, took exception to that statement. “There’s a purity and integrity to toilets that Facebook seriously lacks.” At least toilets flush away the waste, rather than letting it accumulate in an intellectual cesspool. Guess you won’t be seeing too many Facebook posts from Oliver any time soon.

It’s not just jokes about toilets, though. In Myanmar, Facebook has had a role in encouraging a long and bloody history of religious conflict. Historically, Myanmar has been a majority-Buddhist country. A vocal portion of that majority has set itself against religious minorities, particularly against the Muslim Rohingya people. Virulent Facebook posts have been followed by actual violence against the Rohingya, to the point where many have deemed the subsequent events a “crisis” and even a genocide.

Now, it’s not fair to pin all of the blame for the Rohingya crisis on Facebook. Still, it has arguably facilitated the spread of hate and rumors that have led to very real deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

Religious hate

This sort of hate speech was posted by religious leaders, politicians, and military personnel throughout Myanmar. Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu spread so much virulently anti-Muslim propaganda that he’s become known as the “Burmese Bin Laden.” Yet, Facebook only got around to banning him from the platform earlier this year.

Why doesn’t Facebook actually employ its own rules to cut back on hate speech overseas? Where is its artificial intelligence, meant to automatically capture hateful terms? Aren’t there at least human users flagging offensive and potentially dangerous content?

First, there’s the issue of language. Facebook’s AI doesn’t recognize Burmese. In fact, its reporting systems weren’t in Burmese until 2015. By that year, it only had two employees worldwide who spoke and wrote Burmese. That number has since grown modestly, and Zuckerberg told Congress that his company is hiring “dozens” more.

What’s Facebook doing about it?

That doesn’t seem to be fixing things immediately, despite appearances. Reuters found more than 1,000 Burmese posts using hate speech just this August. The Band-Aid of a few more workers from Myanmar doesn’t seem to have slowed the tide of false claims and violent consequences.

It’s not as if a company that moves fast and breaks things can’t make serious moves. With so many resources at their disposal, why aren’t Zuckerberg and his colleagues at Facebook doing more? Yes, this a complicated situation that has many difficult aspects. Still, that hardly seems like an excuse for them to have moved so painfully slowly.

Related Story. Oliver talks voting rights and felony convictions on Last Week Tonight. light

Perhaps, said Oliver, Facebook should start airing ads acknowledging how much people lie on the platform. We might as well throw in a few lines about how people censor themselves, not to mention the deep, only sometimes-hidden evil that lives within humanity. “Facebook is a toilet,” said one of the actors in Last Week Tonight’s fake ad. “And, God willing, your country will survive it.” Hopefully, for Myanmar’s sake and ours, they’re right.