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Watch: John Oliver explains how Facebook is wreaking havoc overseas

The Last Week Tonight host went all-in on Facebook’s role in stoking political unrest in places like Myanmar.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

John Oliver went all-in on Facebook during Sunday’s edition of Last Week Tonight. But his focus wasn’t any of the usual reasons for which Facebook has sustained intense criticism over much of the past year.

Skipping over the issues of privacy concerns, fake news, and government criticism that have put Facebook in the recent spotlight, Oliver instead devoted the segment to a far more dire concern that doesn’t typically receive as much attention here in the US: Facebook’s role in the spread of hate speech and violence — and their effects on democracy — overseas.

Oliver outlined a number of ways in which Facebook has helped amplify fringe extremism with deadly consequences in regions like the Philippines and Myanmar. Particularly in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been the target of ethnic cleansing by the country’s Buddhist-led government, Facebook has been heavily criticized for inflaming violence.

In March, Marzuki Darusman, the chair of a UN fact-finding mission on human rights in Myanmar, stated of Facebook’s controversial presence there that it had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict ... hate speech and incitement to violence on social media is rampant, particularly on Facebook.”

Oliver argues that Facebook has contributed to these problems through a combination of relentless emphasis on growth and “connecting people,” a slowness to admit that it has caused harm via its influence in certain communities, and an even slower willingness to step in and change. Not helping, Oliver says, are algorithmic quirks that do damage when met with cultural differences and translation errors — like a disastrous feature that added balloons and confetti to survivor posts after an Indonesian earthquake.

Oliver also pointed out that Facebook spent years refusing to ban one of Myanmar’s most extreme and hate-inciting public figures, despite his having produced posts that sparked anti-refugee violence in the past. “That is just one example of the extent to which Facebook became an echo chamber of Islamophobia” in Myanmar, Oliver said.

Finally, he highlighted just how many people in Myanmar seemed content to receive distorted and xenophobic information from Facebook, using footage of interviews in which people parroted ideas from inflammatory posts they had read. “That is very, very dangerous,” he said, “because no one should be judged by the worst things people say about them on Facebook.”

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