Meta removes Myanmar army-linked businesses from Facebook

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, has removed pages, groups and accounts representing businesses controlled by Myanmar’s military, which seized power in February.

Wednesday’s announcement came a day after groups representing Rohingya Muslim refugees in the US and the UK filed a lawsuit seeking $150bn from the company, which they alleged allowed hate speech to proliferate on its platform in Myanmar.

The plaintiffs alleged that Facebook’s algorithms prioritised “dangerous and harmful content” and that the company was repeatedly warned about “the vast quantities of anti-Rohingya hate speech and misinformation on its system”. 

Rafael Frankel, Meta’s director of policy for Asia-Pacific emerging countries, announced in an online post the company was expanding its ban of the Myanmar military to include businesses. Frankel told the Financial Times that the company was taking action because documentation presented by the international community and non-governmental groups proved those businesses had a “direct role in funding the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] and the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Myanmar”.

He said Meta’s decision to extend the ban had “nothing to do” with this week’s lawsuit and had been made “a couple of weeks ago”. 

“There’s no correlation between those two things,” Frankel told the Financial Times.

In reaction to the lawsuit, Meta said it was “appalled” by crimes committed against the Rohingya and outlined steps it had taken on Myanmar, including building a dedicated team of Burmese speakers and investing in Burmese language technology to reduce “violating content”.

The company has been under intensifying pressure from civil society groups since the military’s 2017 crackdown on Rohingyas, which killed thousands and forced more than 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

After the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, Facebook banned remaining Tatmadaw content on its platform and barred military-linked companies from advertising. Since the coup, the junta has been accused of killings, torture and other atrocities.

In removing military-linked companies’ content, Meta said it was using as its guide a 2019 report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which detailed companies and ventures from which military officers and the Tatmadaw profited.

After the coup, the US, UK and EU imposed sanctions on military-controlled conglomerates. Companies doing business with them, including Japanese brewer Kirin, announced plans to divest.

Frankel told the FT that Meta’s new ban would include companies in which the military was a minority shareholder, such as Kirin’s Myanmar Brewery, in which military conglomerate MEHL owns a 49 per cent stake.

Facebook has long been criticised by human rights and civil society groups focused on Myanmar, where the social media network is widely used. In 2018, the company admitted it had not done enough to prevent its platforms being used to incite violence.

A leading campaign group welcomed Meta’s banning of military businesses, but urged the company to ensure it was enforced.

“The military’s businesses are complicit in the military’s atrocity crimes and have long benefited from publishing on Facebook,” Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar, said.

“Meta must now ensure the ban is comprehensive, applying it to all of the military’s joint ventures, and proactively enforce the ban.” 

Follow John Reed on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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