The existence of social media has brought a sense of democracy to the internet. Never before has there been a place where we can be seen as an equal, where a university student can talk directly to celebrities and corporations. This democratic dialogue has become twisted, and in places such as Myanmar what was being used for just a tweeted complaint from a consumer to a company has turned into state actors inciting violence through social media posts.
This democratic dialogue that existed in the first place, was born out of widespread access to social media. John Suler writes on the online disinhibition effect, and how it presents itself in two ways, benign and toxic. Someone can choose to either put the good or bad parts of themselves online. Being the evil version of yourself is easier on the internet, you have the anonymity and invisibility that is unavailable to you in face to face interactions (Suler). The concept of the minimization of authority has had the greatest effect on how dialogue is facilitated online. No hierarchy exists online (Suler), as long as someone articulates themselves they can hold their own in an online discourse with anyone, even with the leader of their country.
In Myanmar, an extreme example of toxic disinhibition occurred as many used the internet as a means to incite violence. As the internet has become more accessible for all Burmese, officials have used Facebook to encourage violence against the Rohingya minority. In the Burmese case, Facebook was used to aggravate and incite a genocide through the use of sham accounts and false stories attacking the Rohingya.
Within the borders of Myanmar live a Muslim minority group, the Rohingya. The Rohingya have been settled in Burma dating back to the seventh century (Charney). Myanmar being a primarily Buddhist country, there has always been tensions between the rival religious sects for centuries. The last few decades the lives of Rohingya have worsened as the government has denied them citizenship, forcibly seized their lands, and inflicted violence (Charney). These actions have ultimately led many to flee Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh, a state that is unable to provide for the immense number of refugees.
Ethnic tensions have reached a new low in Burma, as a campaign of ethnic cleansing was launched against the Rohingya. Over seven hundred thousand had fled across the border by the end of 2017, fleeing from massacre, rape, and arson inflicted by both large mobs and regiments of soldiers (Beech). It is estimated that thousands of people have died as Rohingya villages were burned to the ground, as a means to eliminate both the Rohingya people and to erase them from Burmese history, by destroying their homeland (Beech). Instances of massacre and arson are increasing as the anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya message is spread online. It was social media, specifically Facebook that gave extremists the platform to bolster their support and to spread Islamophobia across all of Burma (Ghodes). Facebook sees this exploitation from extremists due to the way internet was implemented in Myanmar.
The rapid introduction of the internet in Myanmar has had dire consequences. Places where the internet has not existed or has not been in widespread use, see more immediate effects on political, social, and cultural issues when compared to areas that see a gradual introduction of both the internet and social media platforms. In the Burmese case in 2014, less than one percent of the population had access to the internet, and then Facebook was introduced (Ghodes). This introduction saw ten million users a month on the Facebook site and around twenty percent of the population was online in just a few years (Ghodes). The spread of the internet and of Facebook occurred in tandem causing the confusion of many Burmese who actually believe Facebook is the internet, rather than just a small part of the large entity (Mozur). Facebook and other social media became a place for organization and mobilization, as radical ideas spread and galvanized people into joining the mobs that threaten the existence of all Rohingya in Myanmar.
Facebook has made an attempt to squash the hate speech proliferated on their platform. In the summer of 2018, many military and religious leaders were banned for committing or enabling “serious human rights abuses in the country” (Beech and Nang). Facebook was forced to do this as human rights groups blamed the platform for enabling propaganda that encouraged the violence against the Rohingya The propaganda campaign consisted of fake names and sham accounts that were run by hundreds of military officers who acted as online trolls (Mozur).
The response by the majority of the Burmese which many posted onto Facebook itself ironically, was that a boycott of Facebook should occur, asking many to question whether or not Burmese Facebook was creating a democratic space for dialogue. Most importantly the examination of whether or not space should be allowed for hate speech and xenophobic language in internet dialogues. Ultimately many in Myanmar believe the government of the day, which insists that the United Nations and many other countries around the world have fabricated the genocidal massacres that have caused hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh (Beech and Nang). Many also believe that it is non-Rohingya who are being persecuted as many of the troll accounts circulated sham photos of the evidence of Rohingya-perpetrated massacres (Mozur). In reality, there are no groups of Rohingya retaliating in this fashion. Both the denial and the victim blaming are common traits among groups of genocide perpetrators, as a means to justify their actions.
As Facebook cracks down of these troll accounts, Myanmar is seeing an increase in users of VKontakte, more commonly known as VK, a social network that is very popular in Russia. In other countries, VK is actually banned due to its pro-Russian nature (Beech and Nang). A former presidential adviser named U Nay Zin Latt summed it up best when he encouraged the Burmese to “Move to VK, which is suitable for nationalists [and to] leave dictator Facebook” (Beech and Nang). The perception of Facebook in Myanmar is that it fails the task of the internet which is to allow for all dialogue, even posts that are false, and incite violence.
The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar has issued a report calling for the U.N. Security Council to refer this case to the International Criminal Court, and for the court to set up an international tribunal. This tribunal would investigate accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing in a similar fashion to the proceedings of the tribunals set up after the genocides in Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia (Cumming-Bruce). Besides these suggestions, no further action has occurred, and many countries refuse to acknowledge the genocide occurring in Burma. Even with Facebook banning those on their platform who incite violence through hate speech, xenophobia is increasingly difficult to banish from the wider internet. Through the use of other platforms such as VK in Myanmar’s case, the internet there will remain a place for all dialogue, even if it promotes genocide.
Beech, Hannah. “Year after Rohingya Massacres, Top Generals Unrepentant and Unpunished.” The New York Times [New York], 25 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/world/asia/rohingya-myanmar-ethnic-cleansing-anniversary.html?module=inline. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Beech, Hannah, and Saw Nang. “In Myanmar, a Facebook Blackout Brings More Anger than a Genocide Charge.” The New York Times [New York], 31 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/world/asia/myanmar-genocide-facebook-military.html?module=inline&login=email&auth=login-email. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Charney, Michael W. “ROHINGYA.” Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, p. 94. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/ps/retrieve.do?resultListType=RELATED_DOCUMENT&userGroupName=sfu_z39&inPS=true&contentSegment=9780684314198&prodId=GVRL&isETOC=true&docId=GALE|CX3403702528. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Myanmar Generals Should Face Genocide Charges over Rohingya, U.N. Says.” The New York Times [New York], 27 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/27/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-genocide.html. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Gohdes, Anita R. “Studying the Internet and Violent Conflict.” Conflict Management and Peace Science, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 90-106. SAGE Journals Online, http://journals.sagepub.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/doi/full/10.1177/0738894217733878 Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Mozur, Paul. “A Genocide Incited on Facebook, with Posts from Myanmar‘s Military.” The New York Times [New York], 15 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html?module=inline. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Suler, John. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” Cyberpsychology & Behaviour, vol. 7, no. 3, 2004, pp. 321-26, truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.