By Antoni Slodkowski
YANGON (Reuters) - Facebook (FB.O) 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 was the first time Facebook banned a country's military or political leaders, according to Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja. She said the bans could not be appealed.
Facebook 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 came 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 general should be prosecuted for orchestrating the gravest crimes under the law.
Facebook's Budhraja said the United Nations findings as well as media reports and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch informed the company's decision. Facebook declined to make executives available for comment on the bans.
Facebook's action means an essential blackout of the military's main channel of public communication, with pages followed by millions of people no longer available to a population that sees the social media app as virtually synonymous with the internet.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay was not available for comment. He was quoted by local media as saying Myanmar had asked Facebook for further details on the reasons for the ban.
"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
The UN report said Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, and five generals should be prosecuted for orchestrating the gravest crimes under law.
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.
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.
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 that 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.
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.
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 neighboring 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 (TWTR.N) and Google's Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), 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.
"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 behavior because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook," Facebook spokeswoman Clare Wareing said.
(Reporting by Mekhla Raina in Bengaluru, Simon Lewis, Aye Min Thant and Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon, Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier, Robert Birsel, Alex Richardson, Toni Reinhold)