Facebook's Oversight Board orders a post criticizing the Myanmar coup to be restored

Content reviewers mistakenly thought the post criticized Chinese people, rather than the state.

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Facebook's Oversight Board has instructed the social network to restore a post from a user that criticized the Chinese state. According to the board, Facebook mistakenly removed the post for violating its hate speech policy under the belief it targeted Chinese people.

"This case highlights the importance of considering context when enforcing hate speech policies, as well as the importance of protecting political speech," the Oversight Board wrote. "This is particularly relevant in Myanmar given the February 2021 coup and Facebook’s key role as a communications medium in the country."

The user, who appeared to be in Myanmar, posted the message in question in April. The post argued that, rather than providing funding to Myanmar's military following the coup in February, tax revenue should be given to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hlutaw, a group of legislators that opposed the coup. The post, which was written in Burmese, was viewed around half a million times.

Although no users reported the post, Facebook decided to take it down. The post used profanity while referencing Chinese policy in Hong Kong. Facebook's translation of the post led four content reviewers to believe that the user was criticizing Chinese people.

Under its hate speech rules, Facebook doesn't allow content that targets someone or a group of people based on ethnicity, race or national origins that use “profane terms or phrases with the intent to insult.” The user who wrote the post claimed in their appeal that they shared it in an effort to “stop the brutal military regime.”

The Oversight Board says context is particularly important in this case. The Burmese language uses the same word to refer to both a state and people who are from that state. Other factors made it clear the user was referring to the Chinese state, according to the board.

Two translators who reviewed the post "did not indicate any doubt" that the word at the heart of the case was referring to a state. The translators told the board the post includes terms that Myanmar’s government and the Chinese embassy commonly use to refer to each other. Public comments the board received regarding the case indicated the post was political speech.

The Oversight Board ordered Facebook to restore the post and recommended Facebook ensures "its Internal Implementation Standards are available in the language in which content moderators review content. If necessary to prioritize, Facebook should focus first on contexts where the risks to human rights are more severe."

The company has had a complicated history with Myanmar. In 2018, Facebook was accused of censoring information about ethnic cleansing in the country. It admitted it didn't do enough to stop people from using the platform to incite offline violence and "foment division," following a report it commissioned about the matter.

Soon after the coup, Facebook was temporarily blocked in Myanmar. After it returned, Facebook took steps to limit the reach of the country's military on its platform, and later banned the military outright on Facebook and Instagram.

The Oversight Board previously told Facebook to restore a post from another user based in Myanmar. As with the latest ruling, the board said Facebook misinterpreted the post as hate speech. While it was “pejorative or offensive,” the post didn't “advocate hatred” or directly call for violence.