Commentary: Facebook's Xi Jinping's name gaffe is no laughing matter
Facebook has gotten it wrong on Myanmar many times, including not taking enough action to curb hate speech. This incident is another reminder of that, says Nehginpao Kipgen.
NEW DELHI: A momentous two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week had been a widely anticipated trip, with a string of anticipated infrastructural deals that would boost investments in Myanmar and enhance ties between both countries in the works for some time now.
Capping off his trip on Saturday (Jan 18), the exchange was a success on many fronts.
Mr Xi met with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw where he signed 33 multi-billion dollar agreements that heralded closer cooperation between China and Myanmar in a wide range of areas from energy to trade.
Among these include agreements regarding the development of a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, a critical asset in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
Calling Myanmar a “trusted friend” of China, Mr Xi reaffirmed the good relations between both sides. He also met with the country’s top leaders, including President Win Myint and military chief General Min Aung Hlaing.
But the visit turned south quickly online after when an unintentional but a serious mistake from Facebook’s automatic translation of Xi Jinping’s name from Burmese into English as "Mr Shithole" surfaced on Aung San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page.
Facebook has since apologised for the error and released a statement. "We fixed a technical issue that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook. This should not have happened and we are taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
However, the error has gone viral on the Internet. While the translation was taken down from the State Counsellor’s Facebook page, it had already spread across Myanmar where the platform is the most popular site for news, entertainment, chat and other networking activities.
Even though it had been a technical glitch, such a mistake has serious consequences.
For one, it embarrasses the Chinese and Myanmar leaderships, and taints the atmospherics of what was supposed to be an important milestone in diplomatic relations.
This is significant for the fact that China has, in recent months, come under severe criticism regarding a wide spectrum of issues including developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
While Chinese investments and infrastructural projects are largely welcome inside Myanmar, many Myanmarese remain sceptical. Some are concerned Beijing’s projects will become a debt-trap, which Myanmar would have to pay the price for many decades to come.
Bilateral relations could be affected if a misunderstanding about the incident provokes a counter-reaction by Chinese citizens. This would have impact on not only state-sponsored projects but also private businesses and the flow of Chinese tourists into Myanmar.
Myanmar cannot risk further isolation. There are few other governments in the world that have been as reliable and staunch a supporter like China in recent years.
There is also much at stake given the mutual desire from both countries to deepen diplomatic ties. For China, Myanmar is not only a destination for its economic activities under the Belt and Road Initiative but also a strategic point and partner to gain access to the Indian Ocean.
FACEBOOK HAS GOTTEN IT WRONG ON MYANMAR MANY TIMES
More seriously, it brings to mind painful memories of Facebook’s problematic track record in Myanmar surrounding the Rohingya crisis.
An independent assessment by non-profit Business for Social Responsibility in November 2018 highlighted that the Big Tech giant wasn’t doing enough to prevent its social media platform from being used to foment division and incite hate.
Some experts have also pointed out how a post about the fabricated rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men was widely shared in 2014, and is considered to have contributed to the communal tensions in Myanmar.
Even after the Rohingya crisis erupted in 2017, there were signs suggesting the Facebook platform continued to play a role in stirring up violence.
In April 2018, US Senator Patrick Leahy pointed out to founder Mark Zuckerberg during a senate hearing on Facebook’s ties to Cambridge Analytica how a specific threat calling for the death of Muslim journalists in Myanmar passed Facebook’s detection systems and took numerous calls by civil society groups for it to be taken down.
What is even more disturbing is that problematic comments stoking deep-seated discrimination against the Rohingya were posted by leaders of Myanmar’s political and security apparatus.
Facebook had said in August 2018 it had cracked down on accounts that shared hate speech and abusive posts, removed dozens of pages and accounts, and taken action on over 64,000 pieces on content.
Against this backdrop, after a long history of “too little done too late” when it comes to Facebook rectifying issues in Myanmar, the error feels more weighty than it would if it were another country’s reputation involved.
WHERE FACEBOOK CAN DO BETTER
The fact also is that such translation difficulties when it comes to the Burmese language is not new to Facebook.
In fact, one of Facebook’s promises made last year was to hire 100 Burmese-speaking moderators to review content, including those with knowledge of regional dialects, on top of improving reporting tools and enhancing the technology used to identify hate speech.
But the recent gaffe over Xi’s name throws doubt on such efforts to counteract misinformation in Burmese, which include a shift from Zagwyi to Unicode just this past year to improve detection of offensive posts.
The worry is whether these incidents suggest other efforts by Facebook to combat hate speech in Myanmar requires a review. Facebook, for instance, has said it has changed its Violence and Incitement policy to cover posts containing misinformation that could lead to imminent violence or physical harm.
There have been examples of when Facebook had lit a bright light in Myanmar. Netizens who took to Facebook in 2018 had exposed a case of murder of a Myanmar comedian that was covered up, which fuelled re-investigations.
Where more than 20 million of Myanmar’s 53 million citizens have Facebook access, the influence the platform yields can have massive effects for Myanmar society, as it looks to hold national elections this year.
Let’s hope it takes that responsibility more seriously and aims for zero of such problems.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is Associate Professor, Assistant Dean and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University.