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Anti-migrant sentiment fanned on Facebook in Malaysia

October 15, 2020 00:00:00

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 (Reuters): As coronavirus infections surged in Malaysia this year, a wave of hate speech and misinformation aimed at Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar began appearing on Facebook.

Alarmed rights groups reported the material to Facebook.

But six months later, many posts targeting the Rohingya in Malaysia remain on the platform, including pages such as "Anti Rohingya Club" and "Foreigners Mar Malaysia's Image", although those two pages were removed after Reuters flagged them to Facebook recently.

Comments still online in one private group with nearly 100,000 members included "Hope they all die, this cursed pig ethnic group".

Facebook acknowledged in 2018 that its platform was used to incite violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and last year spent more than $3.7 billion on safety and security on its platform.

But the surge of anti-Rohingya comment in Malaysia shows how xenophobic speech nonetheless persists.

"Assertions that Facebook is uncommitted to addressing safety and security are inaccurate and do not reflect the significant investment we've made to address harmful content on our platform," a company spokeswoman told Reuters.

Reuters found more than three dozen pages and groups, including accounts run by former and serving Malaysian security officials, that featured discriminatory language about Rohingya refugees and undocumented migrants.

Dozens of comments encouraged violence.

Reuters found some of the strongest comments in closed private groups, which people have to ask to join. Such groups have been a hotbed for hate speech and misinformation in other parts of the world.

Facebook removed 12 of the 36 pages and groups flagged by Reuters, and several posts. Five other pages with anti-migrant content seen by Reuters in the last month were removed before Reuters queries.

"We do not allow people to post hate speech or threats of violence on Facebook and we will remove this content as soon as we become aware of it," Facebook said.

Some of the pages that remain online contain comments comparing Rohingya to dogs and parasites. Some disclosed where Rohingya had been spotted and encouraged authorities and the public to take action against them.

"This kind of hate speech can lead to physical violence and persecution of a whole group. We saw this in Myanmar," said John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, an independent group focused on Southeast Asia.

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