The Facebook Oversight Board has ordered Facebook to restore a post from a user in Myanmar criticizing the country’s new regime and its ties with China. The post was initially taken down for violating policies on racial hate speech against Chinese people, but the Oversight Board found the offending phrase was more appropriately viewed as political criticism of the Chinese government.
Issued on Wednesday morning, the decision turned on how Facebook moderators translated a specific Burmese word, rendered in the post as “$တရုတ်.” Facebook had translated the word as “fucking Chinese” and classified it as Tier 2 hate speech under the platform’s community standard. The user appealed the decision, describing the post as advice to elected leaders and saying the post should be reviewed by “someone who understands the Myanmar language.”
“automatically selected ... for classifier training”
After reviewing the post, the Oversight Board sided with the user, finding that the post was criticizing the influence of the Chinese state rather than the Chinese people. “As the same word is used in Burmese to refer to a state and people from that state, context is key to understanding the intended meaning,” the board’s decision reads. “A number of factors convinced the Board that the user was not targeting Chinese people, but the Chinese state.”
In an interesting twist, no user ever flagged the post as offensive. According to Facebook, the post came under scrutiny after it was “automatically selected as a part of a sample and sent to a human reviewer to be used for classifier training,” part of the company’s ongoing efforts to improve algorithmic flagging. When the reviewer flagged the post as hate speech, it was routed through Facebook’s normal moderation system.
Facebook has long struggled with moderation in Myanmar, and has been accused of inflaming widespread racial violence in the country. After a military coup in February, Facebook was briefly blocked in the country and instituted a number of emergency moderation measures once access was restored. Still, Facebook moderators continue to take a hard line against anti-coup groups, even as a number of groups formerly designated as terrorist organizations have taken power.
The Oversight Board was founded in part as a response to those issues, particularly concerns from civil society organizations that Facebook’s moderators were too friendly with local governments. Officially launched in October, the board does not have any members from Myanmar, but it does include local subject matter experts from Taiwan and Indonesia. This is the board’s fourteenth public decision.