Facebook is facing its first major controversy in Myanmar, a situation we are now referring to as Kalar-gate. This controversy stems from Facebook’s (good) intentions to use technology to ban hate speech.
But speech is nuanced, and while AI is now doing amazing things, it has not quite caught onto Myanmar’s language and word choice.
Before getting to the controversy, first some background about Myanmar’s digital landscape, and especially Facebook.
Myanmar is experiencing a connectivity revolution un-paralleled to other countries. If internet penetration used to be lower than North Korea a few years ago, people today are connecting faster than ever. The Burmese jumped directly on to mobile with no developed internet platform to support the leap and instantly turned to Facebook as their main gateway to the web.
Today, over 15 million Myanmar netizens use Facebook. The social media platform plays a number of important roles in people’s every-day lives as it serves political, societal, communication and information purposes.
The social media platform is not unaware of its success among the people in Myanmar and has put some efforts in developing programs and products in Myanmar. They offered precise geo targeting for brands before Google, made their safety check feature available during natural disasters and even extended their free basics program to the country last year.
In-spite of this, it has not only been easy for Facebook in Myanmar. As netizens are jumping in a kind of open speech territory, Facebook often serves as a hate speech amplifier against minorities. The platform has been criticized for that matter and started making plans for content monitoring.
And then the kalar-gate happened.
“Kalar” is a sensitive word in Myanmar, used to refer to foreigners of darker skin and to Muslims, often in a derogatory way.
In an effort to control hate speech, Facebook has recently given more attention to the term and started banning posts that were mentioning it. As it’s community standard states: Facebook officially relies on users to report hateful content. But it appears that the company might have also been using AI and machine learning in Myanmar. Indeed, a lot of posts bearing the script for Kalar with no underlying hate speech have also been temporarily banned.
Yarzar Soe-Oo, a Burmese Facebook user said he was banned last Friday after posting about the soup: (“kalar pal hin”) while sitting in a chair (“kalar htaing”).
He is not the only victim of Facebook’s content control outreach and the polemic has sparked outrage as people feel they are being arbitrarily robbed of their language. Some users outlining the ban were also banned for citing “kalar”.
U Khin Aye, a former Burmese professor from the Rangoon University, told local media ‘The Irrawaddy’ that the original meaning of the word is not derogatory but “ implies a bad sense when people use the word intentionally to insult a group of people”.
This issue is of particular interest in a country that has been under dictatorships for the past 55 years and is only now discovering free speech (to some extent). People have been jumping to online mediums where they found a powerful voice (bad or good). As Facebook has a responsibility over the content it carries it should also monitor in a responsible way and keep individual freedoms intact.
This is Facebook’s first faux-pas towards its Myanmar fans and might not be the last if closer attention to the country’s social dynamics is not given.
Raphael is Digital & PR Executive for ASEAN markets. Since moving into Myanmar he is regularly stunned by the country’s electrifying digital ecosystem.