A series of actions taken by Facebook this week in an effort to repair its reputation in Myanmar have produced the opposite effect – a torrent of fake news.
On Tuesday, Facebook held its highest-profile visit to Myanmar yet, with vice president for public policy in Asia-Pacific Simon Milner meeting the heads of the Ministry of Information in Naypyidaw to discuss the platform’s “community norms, policies, usage of violent, vulgar and hate speech, account security.” The visit followed months of criticism over Facebook’s failure to prevent the spread of malicious content during a nationwide surge in antipathy toward Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
On Thursday, Facebook started following up on its commitments by removing the accounts of several hardline Buddhist nationalist figures, including firebrand monks Parmaukkha and Thuseitta. Also blacklisted was the military-affiliated former lawmaker “Bullet” Hla Swe, who gained his nickname by suggesting that a good way to negotiate with the Kachin Independence Army is with bullets. He has also famously used Facebook to stir hatred against Myanmar’s Muslims and to boast about having forcibly conscripted LGBT people into military service when he was an officer in the 1980s.
“I hate gays very much because they are useless. I call them ‘fake people,’” he wrote in 2015.
However, rather than commending Facebook for taking action against needless hatred or even criticizing the company’s late response to a problem that has plagued Myanmar for years, a Facebook page called Excellent News Agency responded to the news of Hla Swe’s removal by falsely claiming that the move was part of a plan to suppress criticism of the National League for Democracy, which holds a majority in Myanmar’s parliament. Hla Swe is a member of the opposition party, though he is no longer in office.
In a post that was shared more than 5,000 times before it was debunked and eventually deleted, Excellent News Agency claimed that Milner and Myanmar information minister Dr. Pe Myint drew up a plan, including a financial agreement, to silence opponents of the ruling party. The post also falsely attributed quotes to Hla Swe that accuse the Myanmar government of closing his Facebook account and that criticize the government for its lack of press freedom.
Shortly after the fake story went viral, the Myanmar-based fact-checking service Think Before You Trust declared it “fake news.” The Excellent News Agency page has since been taken offline.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information has also denied plotting the deletion of specific critics’ Facebook accounts, writing in a post today that its duties do not include monitoring, controlling, or restricting social media users’ activities.
Even Hla Swe has disavowed the conspiracy theory, telling Coconuts: “I do not accuse the government or anyone for closing down my account. Only the person who did it knows why they did it. That person must be a coward.”
He was not aware that Facebook, after years of ignoring him and other hate-mongers, had finally started to uphold its community standards.