Wed 16 Jul 2014
Filed under: Business / Trade,Inside Burma,News
Facebook is under the spotlight in Myanmar after the latest outbreak of communal rioting was blamed on rampant hate speech and rumor-mongering by users of the social media platform.
An online rumor that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman was the spark for riots earlier this month in the country’s second largest city of Mandalay that left two people dead.
The outbreak followed a familiar pattern. Since simmering resentment against Muslims spilled over into violence in mid-2012, stories alleging Muslims have raped Buddhist women have been shared widely among Buddhist nationalists on Facebook.
It is often stories like this – or reports of fights between a Buddhist and Muslim – that appear to draw enraged mobs onto the streets.
Up to 280 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in waves of ethnic unrest that have coincided with Myanmar’s transition from a brutal military dictatorship to what the new quasi-civilian government claims is a fledgling democracy.
That reform process included lifting severe restrictions on freedom of speech, relaxing media censorship and making the Internet more widely available.
But a less repressive government and access to the Internet in Myanmar, where Facebook has become enormously popular, has emboldened extremists to self-publish a torrent of hate, including calls to have Muslims killed or deported en masse, and regular references to them as “dogs”.
At the same time, fabricated or highly distorted stories – many of which demonize Muslims – are rife, and often enthusiastically shared by hundreds of people.
“Our people are hungry for media because we had to go a long time without any news,” said Nay Phone Latt, an activist with a local anti-hate speech group named Panzagar, or Flower Speech.
“Now we’ve got so much news, real and fake, most people can’t differentiate between what is real and what is fake,” he told the Anadolu Agency this week.
He added, “On social media there is no editor, readers have to take the role of editor.”
Well-known nationalist monks have been accused of helping to spread misinformation. As tensions escalated in Mandalay earlier this month, notorious extremist monk Wirathu logged on to his Facebook account and posted a comment that large numbers of Muslims were “armed to the teeth” and ready for jihad.
Wirathu also shared the post that alleged a Muslim teashop owner in Mandalay had raped a Buddhist woman. He has since deleted the comment after facing an accusation he has become all too familiar with in the wake of other attacks on Muslims – that he played a role in stoking the violence.
Almost two weeks after a nighttime curfew was put in place in Mandalay following a third evening of violence the order remains Wednesday.
Facebook users in the city had said that during the disturbances they were unable to access the platform for long periods of time, leading to widespread belief that the government had blocked the site.
Neither the government nor Facebook has confirmed that belief, but last week officials announced that they had met with representatives from the company to discuss ways of tackling incitement, rumors and hate speech.
Facebook does not actively monitor content, but Nay Phone Latt and his fellow activists at Panzagar do. About 20 of them scour Facebook reporting accounts they believe are inciting violence and spreading hate speech.
“The short term solution is to charge the people who are inciting,” said Nay Phone Latt. “The long-term solution is education and laws.”
In the coming months and years, the task of controlling hate speech online is set to become more and more difficult. Internet access is expected to increase dramatically with the introduction of cheap SIM cards with fast 3G Internet access.
The majority of Internet users in Myanmar access the web on their smartphones, but connections are often extremely slow.
Despite complaints about download speeds, figures from the Myanmar Computer Federation say 10 percent of the population now has internet access – a huge increase on the one percent who were connected just two years ago.
Nay Phone Latt says the rapidly increasing number of Internet users threatens to deepen Myanmar’s religious divide even further, and that people urgently need to be educated about social media.
Another problem – he says – is that the government “doesn’t take any action against extremist groups who are intentionally spreading hatred… and creating violence.”