Facebook has been forced to apologise after a “technical issue” caused Chinese president Xi Jinping’s name to be rendered as an obscenity in Burmese-to-English translations.
The mishap is the latest embarrassment for the US social media company in Myanmar and came to light on the second day of Mr Xi’s state visit as he and Aung San Suu Kyi signed infrastructure deals worth billions.
On Saturday the Chinese president’s name appeared as “Mr Shithole” in translations from Myanmar’s main language into English, including on the Facebook pages of news website The Irrawaddy and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s office.
“Mr Shithole, President of China arrives at 4pm,” one of the posts read when translated into English. “Consultant Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is friendly.”
The Myanmar leader, who is barred from the country’s presidency because she has family members who are foreign citizens, holds the titles of state counsellor and foreign minister.
Facebook said in a statement on Saturday: “We fixed a technical issue that caused incorrect translations from Burmese to English on Facebook. We have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We sincerely apologise for the offence this has caused.”
The US company said that its teams investigated and confirmed that the mishap was caused by a “translation quality error”.
Facebook’s Burmese translation data did not contain Mr Xi’s name. When the company’s system encounters words that are not in its language model, it makes guesses and replaces them with words having similar syllables.
After the blunder was uncovered, Facebook said it tested several similar words that start with “xi” and “shi” in Burmese, which use the same character, and these were also translated as “shithole”.
On Sunday morning, coverage of the gaffe could not be found in mainland Chinese media, which carefully controls information regarding the leader.
While China does not allow its citizens to access Facebook freely, the country is the company’s largest source of revenue after the US. Facebook is setting up an engineering team at its Asia-Pacific office in Singapore to focus on the lucrative Chinese advertising market, Reuters reported this month.
Myanmar has been the source of a series of controversies for Facebook, including incidents where its platform and messenger app were abused by extremists making violent threats. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, in 2018 apologised to civil society activists there for not doing more to prevent hate speech.
Human rights groups have criticised it for not having enough staff who speak Burmese or Myanmar’s main minority languages.
Myanmar faces international condemnation for its 2017-18 military-led crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims, in which human rights groups said incitement on social media played a role.
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