Last week, after frustrated activists from Myanmar sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, they got something unexpected: a reply.
The activists, representing six civil society organizations, harshly criticized Mr. Zuckerberg in the letter, saying he had mischaracterized Facebook’s response to violence-inciting messages in Myanmar and had not devoted sufficient resources to enforcing its hate speech rules in the violence-stricken country. Mr. Zuckerberg wrote back to the group the next day from his personal email address, apologizing for misspeaking and outlining steps that Facebook was taking to increase its moderation efforts.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s email, which was provided to The New York Times by the activist groups, was the chief executive’s first direct communication with the local groups that have criticized Facebook’s role in the country’s growing humanitarian crisis. Facebook has been accused by United Nations investigators and human rights groups of facilitating violence against Rohingya Muslims, a minority ethnic group, by allowing anti-Muslim hate speech and false news to spread on its platform.
Facebook is a dominant source of information in Myanmar, and civil society groups have accused it of being a kind of absentee landlord, with few moderators and systems in place to keep extremists from using Facebook posts to incite violence.
In his email, Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook had added “dozens” of Burmese language content reviewers to monitor reports of hate speech and had “increased the number of people across the company on Myanmar-related issues,” including a product team working on building tools to try to help stem the violence there.
“I apologize for not being sufficiently clear about the important role that your organizations play in helping us understand and respond to Myanmar-related issues,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote.
The disagreement centers on a chain letter that spread on Facebook Messenger in Myanmar in September. The messages warned Buddhist communities of an imminent Muslim attack. Meanwhile, Muslim populations received a separate message cautioning them of violence from militant Buddhist groups.
Civil society groups say the messages paralyzed major cities in Myanmar and raised fears of a violent clash. Such incitement and scaremongering have become far too typical on Facebook, according to the groups, which say Facebook has repeatedly failed to follow through on promises to devote more resources to the issues.
In an interview last week, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared to hold up the September episode as a model of Facebook’s effectiveness, and said the company’s systems had detected the messages and stopped them. In fact, the activists said, they flagged the messages repeatedly to Facebook, barraging its employees with strongly worded appeals until the company finally stepped in to help.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal email did not quell the activists’ frustration. The groups say the biggest obstruction to their attempts to push back against a torrent of dangerous hate speech is not their lack of resources but Facebook itself. They said Facebook had a history of pledging to do more to help quell ethnic violence in Myanmar but had not fulfilled its promises.
“It’s great that he’s engaging personally with this, but the stuff he’s talking about is really not that much different from what they’ve been saying for the past few years,” said Jes Petersen, the chief executive of Phandeeyar, an innovation lab in Myanmar that has worked with Facebook to produce localized versions of its community standards.
A Facebook spokeswoman, Debbie Frost, confirmed the authenticity of Mr. Zuckerberg’s email, and said Facebook was planning to continue engaging with the activists.
Years after civil society groups first began flagging hate speech in Myanmar, the company still has no permanent office or staff in the country and seems to be struggling to give its platform sufficient oversight. In Germany, where hate speech laws require vigilant attention from content reviewers, Facebook has hired about 1,200 moderators. In order to achieve the same ratio of users to moderators in Myanmar, Facebook would need to have around 800 reviewers in the country, Mr. Petersen calculated.
“Dozens of content reviewers is not going to cut it,” he said.
The civil society groups have already responded to Mr. Zuckerberg’s reply, asking for hard data about Facebook’s efforts in the region, including how many Burmese-speaking reviewers the company has, how many accounts the company has taken down in Myanmar and how long, on average, it takes for Facebook to respond to reports of hate speech.
“A lot of what they’ve been doing is cosmetic — it’s not the tangible improvement we’re looking for,” said Victoire Rio, a social media analyst in Myanmar who was named in Mr. Zuckerberg’s reply.
Activists in other developing countries have raised similar complaints about Facebook’s behavior. In Indonesia, politicians have called Facebook executives to account for the spread of disinformation. In the Philippines, critics of President Rodrigo Duterte have faced barrages of threatening posts. Last month, the government of Sri Lanka ordered Facebook blocked in an attempt to stem mob violence against Muslim communities.
Last month, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s News Feed head, said in an interview that he and other Facebook executives “lose some sleep” over the possibility that Facebook had led to real-world violence.
Mr. Petersen said he hoped Mr. Zuckerberg’s appeal would spur actual change and not just expressions of worry. “I wonder how he spent those sleepless nights — because we didn’t see that much change,” he said.
Here is the full text of Mr. Zuckerberg’s email to the civil society groups, followed by the groups’ response:
Mark Zuckerberg’s email
The civil society groups’ response. The half-dozen signatories of the response include Phandeeyar, a leading technology hub in the country; the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, which monitors online hate speech; and the Center for Social Integrity.