SINGAPORE: Acknowledging Facebook's role in fuelling anti-Rohingya propaganda in Myanmar, the social media giant's chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said that people had been trying to use Facebook's tools to "incite real harm" in the region.
Speaking to news site Vox in an interview released on Monday (Apr 2), Mr Zuckerberg said the role of Facebook as a source of propaganda in the region is something the company is paying a lot of attention to.
"The Myanmar issues have, I think, gotten a lot of focus inside the company," he told Vox as he went on to detail an incident when he was informed of "sensational messages" being spread through Facebook Messenger to incite violence on both sides of the conflict.
"I remember, one Saturday morning, I got a phone call and we detected that people were trying to spread sensational messages through — it was Facebook Messenger in this case — to each side of the conflict, basically telling the Muslims, 'Hey, there’s about to be an uprising of the Buddhists, so make sure that you are armed and go to this place.' And then the same thing on the other side," he said.
"So that’s the kind of thing where I think it is clear that people were trying to use our tools in order to incite real harm."
In that case, Facebook's systems detected what was going on and stopped the messages from going through, said Mr Zuckerberg.
"But this is certainly something that we’re paying a lot of attention to."
Militant attacks in Myanmar's Rakhine state led to a government crackdown which saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee to neighbouring Bangladesh - a situation that the United Nations has called "textbook ethnic cleansing".
"One of the scary stories I’ve read about Facebook over the past year is that it had become a real source of anti-Rohingya propaganda in Myanmar, and thus become part of an ethnic cleansing," said Vox interviewer Ezra Klein.
He questioned Facebook's ability to manage its "global scale" in countries such as Myanmar, pointing out a comment by the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division Phil Robertson that Facebook was dominant for news information in Myanmar, but that Myanmar is not an incredibly important market for the company.
In response, Mr Zuckerberg said that Facebook needs to become a "more global company".
"We have offices all over the world, so we’re already quite global," he said.
"But our headquarters is here in California and the vast majority of our community is not even in the US, and it’s a constant challenge to make sure that we’re putting due attention on all of the people in different parts of the community around the world."
Facebook is at the centre of a scandal over alleged misuse of its users' personal data by communications firm Cambridge Analytica, which is also linked to United States President Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
The company has received invitations to testify before Congress, with British Members of Parliament also demanding to interview Mr Zuckerberg personally over the data privacy scandal.
The social media giant acknowledged that it "got it wrong" and had a "moral obligation" to inform users earlier about the breach in its policies involving Cambridge Analytica, when its vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner, appeared before the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in Singapore.
The issue sparked a tense exchange between Mr Milner and Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, who quizzed Mr Milner about whether it was "odd" that Facebook users were not informed about the breach earlier.