Fake News as a Matter of Life and Death

One day, no one knew him. The next, everyone did. That is what happened in Myanmar (colloquially known as Burma) when all of a sudden people were talking about Donald Trump due to the internet. The World Bank estimates, that less than 1% of the Burmese population had internet access until 2014. Today, approximately 20% of Myanmar is online. What happens when everybody is new to the internet and joining Facebook at once?

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Shar Ya Wai, a Burmese citizen explains:

“It is great to have a public space where everyone seemed to have so much to say, it was bombastic, overwhelming. It felt like the polar opposite of the quiet, sheltered life she’d lived until recently.”

The sudden arrival of the internet to the general public has revolutionized many things. People interactions became different and citizens get their news in another way. It is difficult to estimate Facebook’s influence in Myanmar, but its domination is so absolute that Burmese use “internet” and “Facebook” just as a synonym.

The internet and Facebook have brought the great opportunity of free speech to Myanmar – but with it fake news and anti-Muslim sentiments. If fake news were able to bias people’s attitude during the US elections (see my last blog), what could it cause in Myanmar – a country only recently freed from military dictatorship? Moreover, Burmese were not instructed about the consequences of free speech with a strict military government.

Whose responsibility to teach them how to safely use the internet was it – the own government or Facebook´s? Most people use more than one account. Facebook’s policy about using real names is not known.

So it came that Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk, has been imprisoned for seven years. He is a hard-line anti-Muslim whose nickname is “the Burmese Bin Laden”. He was accused of his speeches which helped fuel the violence against the country’s Rohingya ethnic group. Every day Ashin Wirathu was active on Facebook, often spreading false information showing Rohingyas as aggressive outsiders. He called for Muslims to be deported from Myanmar and for the boycott of Muslim businesses. Also, posts containing information about how Muslims hurt the country are prevalent. For example, a photograph of ISIS beheading rows of men in Iraq with the caption “Muslim terrorists beheading Buddhists”.

How should Burmese know which information is real and which fake? Hateful speeches like these have put Facebook into an intense information war. International human right groups criticize that Facebook should undertake more against hateful speeches – concentrating as much on global human rights as on its business.

The United Nations calls it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape a military crackdown.

Muslims explain that they had often reported abusive comments on Facebook, but only a few of the posts were taken down. On the other side, the Myanmar government blamed propagandists for posting incorrect captions about the treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims.

These are screenshots of an unverified video showing a screaming child was posted alongside the words: “Video of a Rohingya child being repeatedly tasered with an electric taser by a Burmese soldier.” Myanmar´s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has denied accusations of such actions, murder and home burning by soldiers and explains:

“Such intentionally fabricated news and photos were sent to international media, international human rights organizations, and governments in an attempt to cause misunderstandings about Myanmar.“

The video was removed quickly after its publication and there were some comments of racists:

Another Muslim victim was Ko Ni, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers. Among other things, he fought for full citizenship to ethnic minorities and he wanted to rewrite the constitution. On social platforms, he was accused of ruining the country and commenters lob racial slurs at him. Thereupon, a gunman who was hired by former military officers killed Ko Ni with a shot in the head.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said: “Facebook is no place for the dissemination of hate speech, racism or the incitement to violence and we will remove content that violates our community standards when it is reported to us.“

The problem is, that Facebook specifies which postings are harmful by its own metrics. And in countries like Myanmar, where existing laws are selectively enforced and ambiguous, it is less evident where Facebook’s responsibilities lie. Thus, hate speech on social media is impossible to regulate. However, Facebook says that they are continuously working on digital literacy improvements and that they will soon release a security awareness campaign design specifically for Myanmar.

2 thoughts on “Fake News as a Matter of Life and Death”

  1. Thank you for this elaborate post on hate speech in Myanmar! I particularly enjoyed it as I wrote a similar piece on the consequences of Facebook’s entrance into Burmese society, and it is always interesting to read on a topic from a different perspective than oneself might have taken. Perhaps not surprisingly, we have chosen very similar aspects of the issues of Myanmar hate speech and misinformation and its close connection to Facebook. Facebook took Myanmar with storm, usage practically exploded overnight, and while I focused mostly on Facebook itself; its accountability, lack of transparency and progress in trying to solve the issues, I felt you angled your post more from a perspective of the users – the people of Burma, both Buddhists and the Muslim/Rohingya minority, the “activists”, nationalists, the people in the forefront, and the “creators of hate”. It is a more personal text that perhaps is closer to the individual, the human beings impacted, which I appreciated. I would have liked to read even more about these individuals affected, their struggle.

    My ambition was to look at Facebook itself, and its idea of the society of utopian connectivity, which so badly has backfired in Myanmar. I think it would be an interesting continued dialogue to keep asking what social media corporations hold in terms of responsibility? What demands can we post on these companies to calculate the risks better ahead of launching their operations in underdeveloped countries? Do their greed and innovation take precedence? Could anyone foresee this, should they have, did they, and if so, did they ignore it? And now, when the crisis is a fact, are they in the forefront of solutions and aid, or do they not recognize their part in it to a large enough extent?

    I’m curious where Trump fits into the equation though, past Burmese Facebook users suddenly finding out about him – in this particular case of mass misinformation and spreading hate on social media, Donald Trump is not a major player – I have not read anything that indicates he has anything to do with the ethnic cleansing still going on in Burma, more than just being a seemingly general advocate for homogeneity…

  2. Very interesting blog post. Two things in particular comes to my mind. The first point relates to the concept of leapfrogging. It brings to mind Sub-Saharan African villagers skipping fixed stationary phones and moving straight to mobile phones. I am not sure as to what the backlash was back then but I can definitely see how moving from no internet straight to Facebook can cause some problems with regards to an information overflow and distinguishing what’s true and what’s not true, what’s news and what’s fake news?

    The latter part of the blog post discussing the vicious treatment of the Rohingya population brings to mind a documentary that was released a few years ago in another South East Asian country, namely Indonesia. The name of the documentary was The Act of Killing and it provides a detailed account of how the country’s military junta in the mid 1960s systematically killed and tortured anyone who was suspected of having communist sympathies. The way the Myanmar government is reacting in response to the accusations of genocide, refusing to take responsibility, refusing to acknowledge the problem resembles the Indonesian attitudes towards the killings in the 60s.

Comments are closed.