A Facebook post by a young Burmese man in September last year: “I am always honing my sword to kill you shit kalar [derogatory term]. You kalar are son of bitch, son of swine.” Accompanying the post is several pictures of him posing with a sword.
Last month, UN investigators pointed out the “determining role” Facebook has been playing in spreading hate speech against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The chairman of the UN independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, Marzuki Darusman, stated in a press conference announcing the interim findings of its investigation of the violence in Rakhine, “[Facebook] has … 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.”
With the proliferation of smartphones and social media only open to the public from 2014 onwards, following decades of censorship under military rule and restricted access to the internet, Facebook is now used by more than 30 million of Myanmar's citizens across the country as a means to communicate with one another. “As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media,” said Darusman.
This reliance on Facebook is not unusual in developing countries, particularly one like Myanmar which was previously closed off, says Dr Faheem Hussain, a professor at the Department of Technology and Society at State University of New York (SUNY) in Korea who works on access to social media and the digital space. “After being disconnected for such a long time, communities in Myanmar were able to access the internet at a time when Facebook was big. To them, Facebook is the face of the internet,” he argues.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist based in Germany, says that a negative change in perception of the Rohingya first occurred around 2012. In October 2011, then Vice President of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Thura U Tin Oo, in an interview with Radio Free Asia called the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “From then on, other Burmese started writing about Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants on Facebook. Social media platforms have since been widely used to propagate false information against Rohingyas,” says Lwin to Star Weekend.
The next trigger, says Lwin, was Zaw Htay, the director general of the Myanmar State Counsellor and de facto leader of the country Aung San Suu Kyi's office, posting on Facebook in June 2012 that Rohingya “terrorists” of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation from Bangladesh were entering the country with weapons. This worsened anti-Muslim sentiment in the country at a time when widespread violence by the military in Rakhine against the Rohingya was underway, which in its latest exodus since August last year has seen almost 700,000 Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh.
Sermons by ultra-nationalist Buddhist leaders, particularly influential hardline monks such as Ashin Wirathu and Sitagu Sayadaw, traditionally hold great sway over Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Wirathu is head of Ma Ba Tha (Committee to Protect Race and Religion), a Buddhist organisation spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric for years now. Last year, Ma Ba Tha was disbanded and Wirathu was banned by the government from preaching for a year.
His ban ended on March 10 this year. But the ban had had no impact as Wirathu continued to spread anti-Muslim rhetoric to hundreds of thousands of his followers on Facebook. He has likened Muslims to snakes and mad dogs and warns that they are “forcefully taking action to establish Myanmar as an Islamic country.” Muslims constitute only five percent of Myanmar's population.
Wirathu, as do government officials and other religious leaders, refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” spreading the false narrative that they are interlopers. The Rohingya are widely regarded in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations.
Having long been accused of spreading hate speech and inciting sectarian violence, Wirathu's account was finally deleted “for violating community standards” by Facebook in January this year. The social media giant
says in a post on the topic, “We are opposed to hate speech in all its forms, and don't allow it on our platform.”
Facebook posts are monitored manually in its Silicon Valley headquarters with the help of a team of content reviewers on the ground in Myanmar. Challenges in understanding the context of local languages far away in Asia mean many hate-filled posts remain up on the site and may have helped incite violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Facebook's head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, said in a recent podcast interview on Slate: "Connecting the world isn't always going to be a good thing… We're trying to take the issue seriously, but we lose some sleep over this."
One point of contention has been the slur kalar which, though historically benign, is nowadays primarily used to denigrate Muslims in Myanmar. In the case of kalar, Facebook has stated that the word is subject to selective policing as it can also be used innocuously in addition to being an anti-Muslim slur. "We looked at the way the word's use was evolving, and decided our policy should be to remove it as hate speech when used to attack a person or group, but not in the other harmless use cases," the post explains.
In addition to hate speech, propaganda by government officials such as Htay also proliferates on Facebook. In another post on July 30 last year, Suu Kyi's office posted that high energy biscuits distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP) of the UN had been found at an alleged Rohingya “terrorist” camp in the Mayu mountains (the post is no longer up on the site but a statement by Htay on Twitter still is). Human rights groups and the UN denounced the post as irresponsible and fueling anti-aid worker sentiments. “Government officials have used Facebook to spread false information, seed hatred, and reinforce negative and discriminatory stereotypes,” argues Matthew Smith, head of Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation working in Southeast Asia.
Suu Kyi also earlier rejected well-documented allegations and evidence of rape during the violence—her official Facebook page calling one woman's story “fake rape”. “In Myanmar, officials regard inconvenient facts as fake news and absurd views as the truth. It's one of the last governments on earth that should be legislating around what's real and what's fake in the news,” says Smith to Star Weekend. The government continues to focus on the few cases where the media published news on the Rohingya that turned out to be fake.
All that is battling hate speech, rumours and misinformation is policing by Facebook, which is falling short. According to Lwin, who frequently posts on Facebook about what he hears is happening on the ground from a network of activists based in Rakhine, “Many posts of Rohingya activists are taken down and accounts disabled while hate speech posts against the Rohingya remain active.” He cites Facebook's unfamiliarity with the Zawgyi font and, though it now works with a Burmese team to moderate posts, questions the team's neutrality. Human rights groups have also alleged that the government is behind pro-Rohingya Facebook and Twitter accounts and posts on the situation in Rakhine being deleted.
“This marks the first time that social media has played such a significant role in contributing to a genocide,” says Dr Hussain. The situation in Rakhine, in his opinion, draws parallels to the genocide in Rwanda in the early 90s, where the radio was used to inflame the Hutus against the minority Tutsis by dehumanising the latter. “Hate speech should be shut down immediately and Facebook should have been tackling this long before now, when it's been called out for it,” he says. More recently, Facebook has also been called out for its role in Sri Lanka where anti-Muslim violence in Kandy, boosted by viral posts and videos encouraging the violence, led to a nationwide state of emergency last month.“I wouldn't go so far as to blame Facebook directly for the violence in Rakhine, but it hasn't been a neutral force in the country. As a platform, Facebook has done more than any other to spread hate-filled anti-Rohingya sentiment throughout the country,” says Smith.
The other side of the coin, of course, is that Facebook and other social media sites and messaging apps have enabled Rohingya citizen journalists and activists from within Rakhine to tell their stories to the outside world. While accounts of violence at the hands of Myanmar security forces are now being shared, so too has anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment spread across the rest of the country.