Since it was unblocked in 2011, Facebook in Burma has become a platform for sectarian hate speech and propaganda
Since June 2012, when violence broke out between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine State, Facebook has become a platform where propagandists mislead social network users in Burma on what seems like a daily basis. There is increasing concern about the number of Burmese Internet users misusing their newfound access to social media. In reality, social networking is not that new to Burmese Internet users, but using it for online propaganda is.
Despite low penetration and strict control of the Internet, active debate on all major religions on Burmese forums did exist for a number of years prior to 2012, with little evidence of animosities spilling into the offline world. Although the country was closed in many ways, people seemed to be more open-minded. Burmese Internet users were allowed access to Facebook in September 2011. However, it is not the only root cause of hate speech and online propaganda since Burmese Facebook users seemed calm until the Rohingya issue emerged in mid-2012.
Since then, fabricated news and falsified images have come from several Facebook accounts with unknown identities. Buddhists portray Muslims as extremists and terrorists while Muslims say Buddhists as racists. Hoaxes are everywhere. Monks from Tibet helping out after a disaster became Buddhist monks killing Rohingya. Infants from orphanages were falsely portrayed as Burmese children displaced by Rohingya rioters.
The situation intensified again recently after the Meikhtila riots. Extremist Facebook pages and accounts with thousands of followers have stoked the tensions with images and stories that cannot be verified. Images from alleged crime scenes – the dead body of a Rakhine girl reportedly raped and killed by three Muslims in June, the burnt body of a Buddhist monk allegedly killed by Muslims in Meikhtila and a video of Buddhist monk threatening to kill Muslims – are all questionable. The “unknown” sources recorded those and uploaded to Facebook, where they spread like wildfire. More interesting is that these are not images and videos likely to be captured by average members of the public, and security forces were included in some videos.
It is unclear who is behind the spread of this information, but the well-known Facebook accounts seem to be interconnected and sub-grouped in terms of pro-Buddhist, pro-NLD (National League for Democracy), pro-Muslim, pro-Rohingya and pro-military. A Facebook page with more than 12,000 followers was recently accused of transfer of ownership for profit.
Yet the government failed to take action on those “unknown” masterminds. Even though a commission was formed to investigate an anonymous blogger for criticizing the parliament, there is still no clear action or even strong condemnation towards online propagandists.
The one positive point of this worrying Facebook revolution is the vocal, and identifiable, users who stand up against extremists from all sides. Although promoting tolerance is not as easy as spreading a heated propaganda, they have prevented Facebook in Burma from becoming a graveyard of extremism.
It is obviously challenging to tackle the issue since the military government was known for restricting freedom of speech. Under the term of “moderating hate speech”, even local popular news agencies are known for censoring content. Perhaps transparent government could help to reduce the huge amount of hate speech and misinformation circulating in the Burmese Facebook community.