Fake news and social media fuelling Myanmar’s ‘ugly renaissance of genocidal propaganda’ against Rohingya
An endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claims there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority
For Buddhists in Myanmar, even a quick scroll through Facebook’s news feed provides fuel for hatred and nationalistic fervour.
An endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claims there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organisations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was long closed off by a military regime, with centuries-old tensions between its Buddhist and Muslim communities leashed by strict control over traditional media. As the country transitions into democracy, those constraints have loosened and access to the internet has expanded rapidly, most notably through a Facebook programme called Free Basics that has catapulted the platform into prominence as major source of news in Myanmar.
But the sudden proliferation of recently available technologies has accelerated the spread of ethnic hatred in Myanmar, stoking tensions amid a violent military crackdown that has sent more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.
Information-age Myanmar is defined by Facebook: More people have access to Facebook than have regular electricity in their homes. A recent study found that 38 per cent of Facebook users in Myanmar got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Myanmar are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Burma is experiencing an ugly renaissance of genocidal propaganda,” said Matthew Smith, the co-founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation working in Southeast Asia. “And it spreads like wildfire on Facebook.”
Ruchika Budhraja, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said the company has been ramping up its efforts in Myanmar to curtail hate speech and has had a Burmese-language team in place to monitor posts “for several years.”
The most well-known purveyor of anti-Rohingya social media posts is Ashin Wirathu, an enormously influential hard-line monk who turned to Facebook after he was banned from public preaching for a year by the government. Wirathu likened Muslims to mad dogs and posted pictures of dead bodies he claimed were Buddhists killed by Muslims while never acknowledging brutality faced by the Rohingya.
Facebook said in a statement that Wirathu’s access to his account had been restricted in the past, and that some content had been removed.
Thu Seikta, a monk in Yangon who uses Facebook as a recruiting tool, knows how effective the social media platform is to mobilise followers. Last April, he advertised a rally outside the US embassy against the State Department’s use of the term Rohingya and subsequently called for volunteers to intimidate Muslim shopkeepers near the golden-domed Shwedagon Pagoda.
Facebook said that Seikta’s account was being evaluated based on information provided by The Washington Post.
Seikta said the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh made him happy. The Myanmar military engaged in what it called “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages and said it only targeted Rohingya militants accused of attacking outposts of security forces, killing officers and stealing weapons.
“Bengali people are the most dangerous people in the world,” the monk said. “It is natural for them to go to their home place. If they come back, there will be more violence.”
In Myanmar, the term Bengali has pejorative connotations and is used to identify the Rohingya. Much of the propaganda that spreads online reinforces the falsehood that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the group having historical ties to Myanmar.
A recent Facebook post on the page of the office of Myanmar military’s commander in chief – which has more than 2 million followers – detailed the results of a military investigation that exonerated itself of any persecution of the Rohingya and used the term “Bengali terrorist” 41 times.
An allegation that some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blamed it on Burmese security forces is also common. Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, used his Facebook page to share the claim, along with images since proven to have been doctored. They remain on his page.
The deployment of Facebook by Suu Kyi’s government “smacks of immaturity of governance”, said David Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst formerly with Human Rights Watch. “The military has embraced this as well. The commander in chief [of the armed forces] is a slave to social media.”
Facebook’s reliance on users to flag questionable content means people like Maung Maung Lwin, 29, a waiter at a trendy coffee shop, are left mostly to their own wits to distinguish fact from fake.
On his phone, Lwin showed news of the Rohingya crisis on his Facebook feed. His friend had posted an anti-Rohingya cartoon that shows the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the UN pushing a Trojan horse full of Rohingya militants into Myanmar. Further down, dated photos of dead Myanmar soldiers are attached to another post. Lwin dismissed the first cartoon as “too political” and the second as obvious fake news.
On November 8, Myanmar’s parliament approved a law that allows the government to “to oversee and monitor the misuse of information technology which may harm the character and morality of youths and disrupt tranquillity”.