SINGAPORE/LONDON • One of two Muslims allowed to run for the ruling party in Buddhist-majority Myanmar's general election tomorrow, Mr Sithu Maung, worries that fake news on Facebook could damage his chances.
Within a torrent of racist abuse and misinformation posted about him ahead of the polls are false claims that he plans to close Buddhist monastic schools and to advocate the teaching of Arabic.
"They use race and religion to attack me," the 33-year-old told Reuters in the commercial capital of Yangon, where he is standing for a seat won by the ruling party in the last election. "These days, people use social media more than ever... and when they see false information 10 times, it becomes the truth."
Social media companies face a global challenge to stop disinformation on elections, including the 2020 United States election.
In Myanmar, the stakes for Facebook are particularly high after previous accusations that it helped incite genocide.
Half of Myanmar's 53 million people use Facebook, which for many is synonymous with the Internet. Facebook executives told Reuters hate speech in Myanmar was "near historic lows" after it invested in resources from artificial intelligence language and photo detection to measures to slow the spread of viral content. But civil society groups have found dozens of networks of accounts, pages, and groups spreading ethnically and religiously charged falsehoods that they fear could lead to strife and undermine the second election since the end of hard-line army rule in 2011.
Reuters separately found more than two dozen inter-connected pages and accounts with a combined reach in the hundreds of thousands. The majority were removed after Reuters flagged them to Facebook.
"There's a short-term immediate concern of all this disinformation and hate speech fuelling real-world violence," said Mr Jes Kaliebe Petersen, chief executive officer of tech hub Phandeeyar, part of the Myanmar Tech Accountability Network, a civil society group coordinating efforts to reduce risks posed by social media. Harmful content, he said, is "spreading like wildfire".
The government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, her ruling National League for Democracy and the election commission did not respond to requests for comment. Although the NLD is widely expected to win the election easily, as it did in 2015, there is precedent for social media hate speech leading to violence in Myanmar.
Anti-Muslim rumours on Facebook were widely seen as helping to trigger deadly riots in 2012 and 2014. In 2017, violent speech on Facebook was blamed for supporting an army crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that drove more than 730,000 to flee Myanmar. But Mr Rafael Frankel, Facebook's director of public policy for South-east Asia, told Reuters ahead of the election: "What we have seen so far is typical and nothing in any way out of the ordinary from what we would see in other parts of the world when an election is happening."
Even before campaigning got under way, Facebook deleted 280,000 items in Myanmar for hate speech in the second quarter of the year, up from 51,000 in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, it is verifying accounts for some politicians - including Mr Sithu Maung - and giving them a direct line for complaints. Facebook also said it had taken down hundreds of accounts for "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" including about 70 it traced to members of Myanmar's military on Oct 8.