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Facebook Cracking Down on Fake News with 'Life or Death Consequences'

A Rohingya refugee girl holds a child during a visit by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres

Facebook says it has taken steps to curb content on the social media platform that has stoked a year of ethnic cleansing in Burma, a campaign for which the Treasury Department sanctioned four Burmese military and Border Guard Police (BGP) commanders and two Burmese military units on Friday.

"The ethnic violence in Myanmar is horrific and we have been too slow to prevent misinformation and hate on Facebook," company product manager Sara Su said in a statement, noting the team created to tackle the problem earlier this year "investing heavily in artificial intelligence that can proactively flag posts that break our rules" since there's a low reporting rate of Burmese hate speech and disinformation.

Su said Facebook has seen a steep spike in detection of violating content. "As recently as last week, we proactively identified posts that indicated a threat of credible violence in Myanmar," she said. "We removed the posts and flagged them to civil society groups to ensure that they were aware of potential violence."

As of June, Facebook had 60 language experts able to review content from Burma and expects to have 100 by the end of the year.

"But it’s not enough to add more reviewers because we can’t rely on reports alone to catch bad content. Engineers across the company are building artificial intelligence tools that help us identify abusive posts and experts from our policy and partnerships teams are working with civil society and building digital literacy programs for people in Myanmar," Su said. "It has also become clear that in Myanmar, false news can be used to incite violence, especially when coupled with ethnic and religious tensions."

Su stressed that the new Facebook focus on "misinformation that has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm" will "initially" zoom in "on countries where false news has had life or death consequences," including Sri Lanka, India, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.

"This is some of the most important work being done at Facebook. And we know we can’t do it alone — we need help from civil society, other technology companies, journalists, schools, government, and most important of all members of our community," she said. "The weight of this work, and its impact on the people of Myanmar, is felt across the company."

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "to take additional actions to support the Rohingya community and to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities committed."

Since the Burmese military campaign against the Rohingya began Aug. 25, 2017, more than 700,000 have had to flee to often squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.

"The systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya is well documented: the Burmese military has murdered thousands of Rohingya; committed widespread rape and sexual violence; razed hundreds of villages; thrown babies into fires; and employed mass graves in an attempt to conceal their terrible crimes," wrote Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in the letter also signed by 13 colleagues.

"Although the reprehensible assault on a Burmese military outpost by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was used as the justification for the wave of ethnic cleansing, there is now reporting from the international human rights community that documents what had been long suspected: that the violence was planned before August 25," they added. "...We urge you and the President to speak out forcefully and publicly about these atrocities. Strong condemnation from both the President and our nation’s top diplomat would be critical signals to Burma and to the international community that the United States prioritizes human rights and will stand up against mass atrocities and ethnic cleansing wherever they occur."

The senators called for the public release of a State Department report detailing atrocities conducted against the Rohingya, unveiling targeted sanctions, working with international partners to bring perpetrators to justice, helping Bangladesh care for the refugees, and more.

They quoted Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

"The United States must heed those words by sending a strong response to the persecution of an entire population," the senators added. "Only through U.S. leadership can we send the message to others who may seek to perpetrate similar crimes that there will be consequences."

On the same day, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced the sanctions targeted against individuals involved in the ethnic cleansing campaign.

“There must be justice for the victims and those who work to uncover these atrocities, with those responsible held to account for these abhorrent crimes," said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. "The U.S. government is committed to ensuring that Burmese military units and leaders reckon with and put a stop to these brutal acts."