In Countries with Weak Institutions, Facebook Can Do More Harm than Good

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Facebook has been used as a venue for false information and hate speech and has caused social disruption in different parts of the world, especially in developing countries. The social media platform features material designed to keep users engaged for the longest possible time, which leaves nations with fragile democratic institutions particularly vulnerable.

Studies show that stories that appeal to the most primal of emotions such as anger or fear engage people the most, hence the proliferation of such content.

As more and more netizens around the world get their news from Facebook, the incidence hatred and violence has also been on the rise. Neither Facebook nor governments have been able to exercise much control over this.

One example of where this has happened is in Sri Lanka, where Facebook has played a part in real-world violence, and where the company’s officers have paid little heed to warnings or appeal for moderation. Facebook did not respond to the New York Times’ invitation to comment on the company’s connection to violence in Sri Lanka, however a spokeswoman sent an email saying that Facebook removes content containing hate speech once it is reported and that it is investing in “technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content.”

But on the ground in Sri Lanka, this is not the reality.  There is tension ongoing between the Muslim minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in the country.  A state of emergency was recently declared due to ethnic persecution, even though the lengthy cicil war between Tamil separatists and the government officially ended in 2009.

Many of Sri Lanka’s citizens use Facebook as their gateway to the internet as a whole, but the social media site has not imposed restrictions for posting news. 

In a particular example of how Facebook has been used to incite violence, the New York Times recently ran a story about how one customer started shouting in a restaurant, believing that sterilization pills had been put into his food. This occurred in a restaurant run by a Tamil-speaking Muslim family.

The man who was at the restaurant’s cash register, Atham-Lebbe Farsith, one of the brothers who owned the establishment, could not understand what the customer was saying, and ignored him. A crowd quickly formed and Mr. Farsith was beaten, the restaurant destroyed, and the local mosque set fire.

On Facebook, meanwhile, a video was released which suggested that Mr. Farsith readily did put sterilization pills into the food served in his restaurant. This has caused Mr. Farsith to fear for his life and to go into hiding.

In another instance Sinhalese rebels have displayed photos of weapons on Facebook and WhatsApp before engaging in dangerous and violent riots.

In Myanmar, Facebook is believed to have spread the propaganda and disinformation that led to the violence against the Rohinga Muslims, who have been the subject of ethnic cleansing. Although complaints were made, Facebook again did little to moderate content. 

In Indonesia, Mexico and India, rumors of strangers coming to harvest children’s internal organs proliferated swiftly on Facebook, which has led to people to kill outsiders whom they suspect of having these motives.

As part of the government’s attempt to quell the tension in Sri Lanka, the site was blocked in the county completely. However, even this did not work, since three million Facebook users were still able to access the site through VPNs.

Even though Facebook is not the source of the ethnic troubles in Sri Lanka or other places, the company is either incapable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of being the gatekeeper for content on the internet. This had led to severe consequences for people who live in nations where democratic institutions are still nascent or fragile.