Digital solidarity with the Rohingya refugees

My post discusses a variety of social media uses in the context of the ongoing Rohingya crisis: it can be seen as a tool for organizing public support and advocating for humanitarian causes as well as strengthening political leadership or implementing censorship on highly sensitive topics.

Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images

As a Communication for Development student I am shy to admit I was not aware of the severity and extent of the Rohingya refugee crisis until this September when Nobel Laureates urged the UN Security Council to intervene in putting an end to human rights abuses and brutal violence in Myanmar. Furthermore, more than 400 thousand people supported this humanitarian cause by signing an online petition on In addition to this, my Facebook friends have massively started customizing their profile pictures with a frame that reads Stop Killing Rohingya Muslims.

There are intensive academic debates around the use of social media as a tool for educating, creating awareness about and engaging in development. On one side, we find a sceptically oriented Evgeny Morozov who speaks about the risks of slacktivism, an action defined  as “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact”. Put it differently, online actions merely serve to construct a positive image of ourselves supporting the most trending causes rather than addressing the real problems and producing a desired social change. A simple click or like alleviates us from the necessity to contribute to the cause in more productive ways, and thus saves our appreciate time, efforts and most importantly money.

In contrast to the techno-pessimism, technological utopianism exaggerates the ability of technological advances to bring about a significant change, at a personal and societal level. ‘Extraordinary effects’ of social tools have been praised by Clay Shirky (2008, p. 21) who affirms that ‘we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action’.

With the ongoing crisis at its peak, at a first glance the overall impression is that little has been achieved since the  outbreak of atrocities in 2015. While Sofia Margareta Møller provides an excellent overview of the Rohingya crisis and its attempts to gain Western media coverage, my aim here is to critically examine the use and power of social media in several initiatives launched by Rohingya activists and their supporters in the West alike, as well as to prepare the ground for further discussion on the role of social media in managing emergency situations.

Let’s start by reversing the chronological order of events. The most recent victory is being celebrated in the UK with the governmental decision to suspend financing and training of Myanmar’s military forces. Since 1991, Burma Campaign UK is considered one of the leading organizations advocating for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. The initiative for an arms embargo against Burma encompassed a variety of activities launched online and off line. In early September, simultaneously with a letter sent by 157 British parliamentarians to Foreign Secretary urging to cancel military cooperation, more than one million signatures were gathered on the platform online.

Similarly, Germany and Austria are in the spotlight due to strong bilateral military ties with Myanmar. It is complicated to attribute the shift in the British foreign policy only to intense digital activism campaigns – the allocation of £305, 000 for the training of the Burma military forces last year and the potential damage to the UK’s image in the context of the Rohingya genocide for sure have had a deterrent effect on the British public authorities.

In opposition to the Western world that remains silent and passive in the face of the plight of the Rohingya (the attitude better known as ‘being concerned’), the Muslim countries have shown a great act of solidarity organizing in their efforts to denounce the violence in Myanmar. Even Russia took up the Rohingya cause with hundreds of Muslims protesting outside the Myanmar’s embassy in Moscow and holding a multitudinous manifestation in Chechnya.

The rally was organized by a controversial president of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov on 4 September 2017. Fiercely criticized for human rights abuses in Chechnya, Kadyrov offered a live video stream on his Instagram account where he addressed the atrocious situation in Burma and expressed his support for the victims. His actions deviate from the Kremlin’s official policy and have generated a substantial amount of critics. With a strong presence on social media Kadyrov seeks to legitimate his regime in the ultra-conservative Chechnya, and second, to position himself as a Muslim leader worldwide.

Finally, I would like to give a real example of how social media can exercise coercive power on humanitarian activists. Facebook, a social networking platform frequently used for spreading social messages and mobilizing popular support for causes, has been put into serious controversy recently when the moderators started deleting any content related to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army  (ARSA). The corporation alleges that according to the internal community norms, the Arsa is considered a dangerous organization due to its violent activities. In fact, the Burma government declared the Arsa an extremist terrorist group in August 2017, after the self-proclaimed ‘freedom fighters’ launched a surprise attack on police posts in the region of Rakhine that caused the death of 12 police agents. Created in October 2016, the Arsa militants call their fight legitimate in order to restore the rights of a Rohingya minority group.

While Facebook denies all allegations of ties to the Burma regime, Myanmar’s political and military authorities keep their official pages on the social media platform despite being accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. For instance, a presidential spokesman Zaw Htay applaused the ban of pro-Arsa messages and invited his followers to report suspected content to Facebook moderators.

I have very briefly presented different uses of social media in the context of the Rohingya crisis: it can be used as a tool for organizing public support and advocating for humanitarian causes as well as strengthening political leadership or implementing censorship on highly sensitive topics.

Guo and Saxton (2013, p.60) explain why more and more activists move online: ‘Social media’s interactive, decentralized environment offers a low-cost way for organizations to mobilize supporters, foster dialogic interactions with large audiences, and attract attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored by traditional media’. Due to the geographical and cultural distance between Myanmar and the West (the latter still tries to cope with the unexpected inflow of refugees), social media have helped to spread the news and gave visibility to the Rohingya people.

On the other hand, we must be aware of social media risks for militants that go from removing content to state surveillance of committed activists (Gerbaudo, 2012; Mandiberg, 2012). Far from being a neutral area, cyberspace is subjected to the mechanisms of power and control. It is essential to take full advantage of social media opportunities without walking into the lion’s den.


Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.

Guo, C., Saxton, G.D. (2014). Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43 (1): 57-79.

Mandiberg, M. (2012). The Social Media Reader. New York: NYU Press.

Morozov, E. (2009). The Brave New World of Slacktivism. Foreign Policy.

Shirky, C. (2008).  Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press.

  • Featured image Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images

4 thoughts on “Digital solidarity with the Rohingya refugees”

  1. Thank you Simona for tackling this issue. Digital solidarity and activism aims to have an impact to support a cause, and consequently leads to actions on the ground.

    It is true that ‘Social media’s interactive, decentralized environment offers a low-cost way for organizations to mobilize supporters, foster dialogic interactions with large audiences, and attract attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored by traditional media’ (Guo and Saxton, 2013:60). However, it is also important to remember what Evgeny Morozov’s said in his book, The net delution, the dark side of internet: “by over-focusing on the technology, we lose sight of what’s really important.”

    We are losing sight that it is not the first time that Rohingya are in the middle of a crisis as it has been ongoing for several decades. Indeed, this ‘disaster exists only because it has been covered by the media’ (Franks, 2008:27).

    Of course, online activism facilitates the dissemination of information on a large scale, but the many photos and videos that supposedly portray the suffering scenes and circulate on social media destroy the credibility of the crisis since many had been filmed in India and Pakistan, or reporting riots in Myanmar in 2012 and 2013. Also, if social media users and media move to another point, it doesn’t mean that the problem is over.

    Furthermore, it is important to remember that “there is an asymmetry of power between the comfort of spectators in their living rooms and the misery and vulnerability of sufferers on the spectators” Stijn Joye (2011:50). Will Taking back Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize make things better on the ground or will the compassion for the suffering ‘others’ stop when reading the credit card number over the phone or sign an online petition?

    I don’t fully agree with Evgeny Mozorov saying that “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact,” but we have not to focus on the container – which is social media in this case – at the depend of the content, which is forces displacement of people and the undermining of basic rights.

    Franks, S. (2008): ‘Getting into bed with charity’, British Journalism Review, 19:3, pp27-32

    Guo, C., Saxton, G.D. (2014). Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43 (1): 57-79.

    Joye S. (2009): The hierarchy of global suffering, The Journal of International Communication, 15:2, pp45-61

    Morozov, E. (2009): The Brave New World of Slacktivism. Foreign Policy.

    1. Aymen, thank you for sharing your insights. I didn’t pretend to praise the power of social media to tackle with humanitarian causes. You’re absolutely right in affirming that the Rohingya crisis exists (in the West) due the wide coverage of atrocities (imagine hundreds or thousands of ongoing incidents that don’t catch the attention of mainstream media and remain invisible).

      In the case of Rohingya, the reluctance of Western countries to put an end to a genocide can be explained by their former support of Aung San Suu Kyi. In my post, rather than engaging into the discussion of moral aspects of similar political solidarity,I decided to focus specifically on the use of social media. Of course,social initiatives online are not enough to solve this crisis,but they made it visible and now it’s our turn to claim responsabilities to our leaders and the Burma authorities alike.

  2. Dear Simona, thank you for contributing this post on the Rohingya crisis. I find it very educating most importantly on your discussion of the academic debate that is still raging within the academic community concerning the use of social media as a tool for educating, creating awareness, and engaging development. On one hand are those who believe in slacktivism, that is by making availability online tools for online activism, activist could be distracted from those forms of engagement needed to achieve political change. While on the contrary are those techno savvy who believe in the power of technology to help bring about the desired political change. My response is intended to engage with former, those who believe slacktivism can prevent the development of political engagement necessary for change to happen. However, going by their contribution (Barbera P et. al. 2015), what those who still hold this contrary opinion regarding the contribution of social media to political change fail to realise is the complex forces that playout in contemporary media environment with regards to the synergy that takes place between those clicking away on their devices in different (peripheral) places and the physically present (core) participants, in the process of starting and scaling up visibility of a protest movement. Thus, the contribution of online activists cannot be regarded as inconsequential and irrelevant in starting and sustaining a protest such as the Rohingya protest. What is your take on this?
    Gbenga Jelili

    1. Dear Gbenga,

      I really appreciate your insights and thank you for joining the discussion about social media’s role in dealing with the ongoing Rohingya crisis.

      As you have already stated, the study carried out by Barberá et al. provide evidence that “peripheral participants are critical in increasing the reach of protest messages and generating online content at levels that are comparable to core participants. ” In my next post on the project Children-404 (, I tried to demonstrate that we are too quick to judge slacktivism as ineffective action. In some contexts (for instances, authoritarian regimes, hostile social environent) it might be the only solution to address a problem.

      I understand that for many of us in the West the Rohingya genocide says nothing given geographical and cultural distance. I find it fascinating how human rights activists managed to mobilize public opinion mainly through online campaigning to put pressure on their governments. We should also raise a question why mainstream media did not provide sufficient coverage of the conflict. Indeed, Rohingya has not reached the level of the Tibetan or Palestinian causes and so far, it has been made visible precisely by initiatives that one would name clicktivism.

      By way of conclusion, I would like to share an article “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted” by an Egyptian scholar Rasha A. Abdulla where she tries to reveal the potential of online activism to attract supporters and pursue a social change. You can access it here:

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