Who Owns a Word?

In Myanmar, the word “kalar” is controversial. Though often used to refer to foreigners in general, it is more commonly used to refer to people of Indian origin, and sometimes in a derogatory manner to refer to Muslims. In 2007, reports emerged that Facebook was banning the word from use—regardless of the intent behind its use. One user, Yarzar Soe-Oo, said he was suspended after posting a jokey quip about eating Indian bean soup (“kalar pal hin”) while sitting in a chair (“kalar htaing”).

In a blog post from that year, Facebook’s VP of EMEA Policy Richard Allan explains that context is necessary when determining whether a certain word or phrase should be considered hate speech; and yet, posts containing “kalar” are often taken down, regardless of context. Similarly, we've seen posts containing the word “dyke” (a slur used against lesbians that has also been reclaimed by the community) frequently removed, and by its own admission, Facebook has encountered similar controversial terms in Eastern Europe.

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May 2017