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Facebook, Hate Speech and Human Rights

An Exploration of Corporate Accountability, Human Rights and Content Regulation — Part 1

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council released a report, which found that the Myanmar armed forces engaged in mass killings and gang rape against members of the Rohingya ethnic minority, as well as widespread systematic destruction of their villages.

The report further found that “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,”and that Facebook’s response to the problem “has been slow and ineffective.”

The finding is not a surprise; earlier this year, UN investigators said Facebook played a “determining role” in the deteriorating human rights situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Indeed, a recent Reuters investigation found that, for years, Facebook devoted scant resources to combat hate speech in Myanmar. As of April 2018, it had just 60 people reviewing reports of hate speech and other content posted by Myanmar’s 18 million active Facebook users.

The UN report recommended an independent investigation of “the extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence.”

Facebook, so far, has reacted by removing accounts and Facebook pages and turning off its service that allowed users to translate Burmese posts. It also hired Business for Social Responsibility to conduct a human rights impact assessment for Myanmar. It has publicly recognized that “false news has had life or death consequences,” not only in Mynamar, but also in Sri Lanka, India, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.

Facebook’s weak response begs the question of how to curb its capacity for abuse going forward.

I have spent the better part of this year researching business and human rights as well as the tension between allowing free speech and addressing hate speech on social media. To me, exploring the ways Facebook might be held held in check offers a means to crystallize my thoughts and learning. Toward that end, I am launching a series of blog posts on Facebook, hate speech and human rights to: 1) assess the mechanisms to prevent U.S. corporations from contributing to human rights violations overseas; and 2) explore current efforts directed at social media platform content regulation and their implications for human rights.


Stay tuned.

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