Facebook ‘bug’ knocks ethnic language off platform

Jan 17 · 2 min read

On January 16, Facebook users in Myanmar found that they were unable to post updates in the Kachin language. It returned the following error:

Posts that included Burmese script seemed to be exempt, as did ones that contained English words. Activists voiced concern at the development: as far as anyone was aware, this was the first time an entire ethnic minority language had been taken offline.

It wasn’t a matter of blocking one particular language’s script, either: modern, online Jinghpaw uses the Roman alphabet.*

For Kachin civil society and ethnic media outlets, the inability to disseminate in-language news and information was a deeply worrying development.

The issue was, however, temporary. It’s business as usual as of this morning, January 17.

When contacted for comment on the matter, a Facebook spokesperson offered the following:

“A bug in our language infrastructure resulted in some people not being able to post in Kachin language. We have now fixed this bug and people should be able to post again in Kachin language. We’re sorry for any inconvenience caused.”

Some on social media had speculated that the ban might be something to do with the visit of China’s president Xi Jinping. Chief among the issues likely to be up for discussion during his Nay Pyi Taw trip is the resumption of the mightily controversial Myitsone dam in Kachin State.

However, indications are that this state visit had nothing to do with the temporary silencing of the Kachin, which I’m assured was a purely technical matter.

In what is perhaps fortunate timing, community consultations with Facebook are reportedly scheduled to take place on January 18 in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina.

Facebook now has ‘over 100’ native speakers working as content reviewers, focused on local-language content from Myanmar’s … 18 million users.
They also reportedly have the ability to review content in ethnic languages, including Kachin. It is unclear if these are direct employees of the company, or (as has often been the case) working for contractors.

*I’m by no means a linguist, and will happily be corrected.

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