Myanmar Army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Photograph:( Reuters )
Facebook said on Monday it was removing several Myanmar military officials from the social media website and an Instagram account to prevent the spread of "hate and misinformation" after reviewing the content.
It also said it removed dozens of accounts for engaging in a campaign that "used seemingly independent news and opinion pages to covertly push the messages of the Myanmar military".
Facebook's action means an essential blackout of the military's main channel of public communication, with pages followed by millions of people in a country where the social media giant is virtually synonymous with the internet.
The move places further pressure on the generals, coming hours after United Nations investigators said the army carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with "genocidal intent". Their report said the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces and five generals should be prosecuted for orchestrating the gravest crimes under law.
"Specifically, we are banning 20 Burmese individuals and organizations from Facebook — including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military's Myawady television network," Facebook said in a blog post.
"We're removing a total of 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook Pages, followed by almost 12 million people," the Menlo Park, California-based company added. https://bit.ly/2PHwRZy
It is the first time Facebook has imposed such a ban on a country's military or political leaders, the company later said it response to a query from Reuters.
Facebook spokeswoman Clare Wareing said by email that the site took this step "since international experts, including a UN-commissioned report, have found evidence that many of these officials committed serious human rights abuses in the country".
Colonel Zaw Min Tun, an official in the military's public information unit, told Reuters he was not aware the pages had been removed. He declined to comment further.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. He was quoted by local media as saying Myanmar had asked Facebook for further details on the reasons for the ban.
A preview of Min Aung Hlaing's Facebook page was still accessible immediately after the announcement and showed it had been "liked" by 1.3 million people. When Reuters attempted to return to it later it had been removed.
Earlier this month, Reuters published an investigative report about how Facebook had failed to combat a campaign of hate speech against the Rohingya and other Muslims.
The piece - which found more than 1,000 posts, comments and images attacking Muslims on the platform - demonstrated that Facebook, despite repeated warnings, had devoted scant resources to controlling the problem in Myanmar, where it is the dominant social media force. (For the Reuters investigation on 'Why Facebook is losing the war on hate speech in Myanmar' click, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate/)
Facebook said a day after publication of the investigation it had been "too slow" to address hate speech in Myanmar and it was acting to remedy the problem by hiring more Burmese speakers and investing in technology to identify problematic content.
The U.N. investigators highlighted the role of social media in Myanmar in Monday's report. "Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet," said the report.
Facebook said it took the step "since international experts, including a U.N.-commissioned report, have found evidence that many of these officials committed serious human rights abuses in the country", Wareing said. "And we want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions."
Min Aung Hlaing has built a substantial social media profile in Myanmar, with the commander-in-chief's page sometimes updated several times a day.
Some of the military's Facebook posts from last year included detailed accounts of clashes with Rohingya militants, often accompanied by pictures.
A year ago, government troops led a crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents on 30 police posts and a military base.
As a result, some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to U.N. agencies, bringing stories of rape, arson and arbitrary killings.
Myanmar has denied allegations made by refugees, saying its troops engaged in lawful counterinsurgency operations against Muslim militants.
Last week, Facebook - along with Twitter Inc and Google's Alphabet Inc - removed hundreds of accounts tied to an alleged Iranian propaganda operation. Facebook also said it had removed pages that the U.S. government had previously named as Russian military intelligence services.
Russia and Iran rejected Facebook’s accusations.
Facebook said the removal of accounts covertly pushing Myanmar military messages was similar to what the company had done in the previous two cases.
"This is part of our effort to identify and disable networks of accounts that mislead others about who they are. We ban this kind of behaviour because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook," said Wareing.