A South Pacific nation is banning Facebook for a month as the region grapples with fake news and censorship

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Papua New Guinea plans to ban Facebook for a month to evaluate the benefit of the platform and delete fake accounts.
  • Facebook has been criticised recently for its role in inciting hatred and violence in Asian countries including Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where it has “turned into a beast” according to a UN official.
  • But there have also been growing instances of censorship across the region, with people being regularly jailed for Facebook posts seen as critical of ruling governments.
  • PNG has said it may even consider creating its own social network.

The South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia’s closest neighbour, directly to its north, will temporarily ban Facebook as the region grapples with potentially troubling side effects of the platform.

The month-long ban will allow the government to research how the social media platform is being used and, in particular, will target fake news and fake accounts.

“The time will allow information to be collected to identify users that hide behind fake accounts, users that upload pornographic images, users that post false and misleading information on Facebook to be filtered and removed,” Communications Minister Sam Basil said, according to the local Post-Courier.

“This will allow genuine people with real identities to use the social network responsibly,” he said, adding that a specific date for implementation hasn’t been set.

“We cannot allow the abuse of Facebook to continue in the country,” Basil said.

Issues with Facebook are rising across Asia

Fake accounts and potential political interference on Facebook aren’t just in Russia’s playbook.

In 2016, weeks before Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, Rappler found 26 fake accounts were able to influence at least 3 million accounts.

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka temporarily banned Facebook, as well as WhatsApp and Instagram, after posts inciting violence towards the country’s Muslim population were discovered amid a state of emergency.

But concern reached new levels when it emerged that Facebook has contributed to the suspected genocide in Myanmar. One UN official said in March that Facebook “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that.”

A UN investigator also said that “everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar” and “that Facebook has now turned into a beast.”

Problems have also arisen in Cambodia, where the Prime Minister’s Facebook page has 10 million likes despite the country having less than 16 million constituents. A Cambodian opposition leader has since taken Facebook to court in California in hope of being granted information on where those likes came from.

Last year, Cambodia was one of the countries where Facebook tested a newsfeed change by putting publishers’ content in a separate page, a move that came amid a government crackdown on independent media.

“It’s astonishing that Facebook is using a group of less-developed countries as guinea pigs for their experiment, especially since the evidence shows that this separation of newsfeeds is likely to have broad and harmful effects on local public discourse and the local media market,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said at the time.

But censorship is also on the rise

Part of the reasoning for PNG’s proposed shutdown is to have time to enforce the country’s Cyber Crime Act so “perpetrators can be identified and charged accordingly.”

The law, enacted in 2017, received praise for its focus on data and network security. But human rights groups are concerned it could also allow the government to crackdown on criticism, and ease the path to censorship.

Defamatory content, offensive publications, and inciting unrest can all be punished by up to 25 years in jail.

Last year, PNG’s electoral commissioner, Patilias Gamato, obtained a court order to stop one blogger tweeting or sharing statements that labelled him “tomato”.

In Thailand, arrest warrants are regularly issued for a range of content posted on Facebook and YouTube. One man was sentenced to 30 years for insulting the monarchy on Facebook in 2015, while another was sentenced to 10 years for comments made in a private Facebook Messenger chat.

Police also monitor Facebook posts in Cambodia. Among numerous incidents in recent years, one man was arrested on his wedding day in February for calling the government “authoritarian” in a Facebook video.

Earlier this year Malaysia introduced a fake news law and last month convicted a Danish citizen over a YouTube video that included inaccurate criticism of police. The country’s new government hopes to repeal the law in June.

Cambodia’s president is reportedly mulling a similar law.

PNG might create its own social network

Papua New GuineaBradley Kanaris/Getty Images

In PNG, Basil seemed unconcerned about a future without Facebook, suggesting that the country may also look at creating a new social network site for local citizens.

“If there need be then we can gather our local applications developers to create a site that is more conducive for Papua New Guineans to communicate within the country and abroad as well,” he said.

A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider the company has “reached out to the Papua New Guinea government to understand their concerns.”

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