Myanmar, Facebook, and Regulation

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar for a few days while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was the beginning of 2016, and Myanmar had only been open to the outside world for 3-4 years at that point. For me, it was amazing to see a country so untouched by western influence–there wasn’t a Starbucks or McDonalds in sight, though there was one KFC at the airport.

Of anywhere I’ve traveled, the Burmese people were by far the most warm and friendly. I happened to be there on a national holiday, and this street had been closed off by the people that lived nearby and both kids and adults were enjoying participating in various relay races.

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When my husband, sister, and I stopped to watch the fun, a few teenagers immediately came over to us to offer us a balloon and to invite us to join in on the fun.

The country has gone through massive changes since it opened to outside investment. When the telecom market was initially deregulated in 2012, less than 1% of Burmese people had access to the internet. By the time I visited just a few years later, over half of the country had a cell phone and was accessing the internet regularly. Facebook served as the main app for these new mobile adopters, and for many, news and Facebook were one and the same.

It wasn’t long before fake news started to spread, and fear began to build about potential future violence from the minority group of the Rohingya. This lead to extremist attacks against the Rohingya and eventual genocide against this minority group taken out by the Burmese government.

There’s been and is still a huge amount of conversation around Facebook’s unwillingness to quickly respond and regulate the inciting comments that built online against this population. Many are even going so far as to blame Facebook for the genocide. But the situation got even more complicated whenever studies started to uncover that it very well may have been an organized campaign against the Rohingya, planned by the Burmese government that eventually carried out this violence. This is the same government that seemed to have so radically shifted to an open and democratic system just a few years before.

Using this example as a way of fleshing out my personal ethical framework, I’ve found myself asking two questions that seem at odds with each other. First, should tools like Facebook be a platform or a publisher? And second, and maybe more importantly, you may trust the regulator now, but what if the regulator changes?

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What I’m most struck by, is that this isn’t the first time the Burmese government has persecuted this population. Thanks to Facebook, however, it might be the first time the people of Myanmar have had an opportunity to hear and read outside voices on what has really happened in their country.