Online hate speech exposes dark side of social media in Burma

Over the past few years, as the military junta has loosened its grip on the country, Burma’s people have flocked online to sites like Facebook. But while many have used these sites to express their thoughts and feelings for the progression of the country, there has also appeared a dark underside to what is being said online. The opening of the country has released a cap on long held resentments, as a result ethnic and religious violence has flared throughout the country.

While internet penetration in the country is still low, particularly in the rural areas, this is expected to begin quickly changing in the coming years.

In this Southeast Asian nation of 53 million people, Facebook has quickly become the dominant site for online discourse. In fact, the site is also used by Burma’s government, which has announced large oil and telecommunications licenses via online posts. But, Facebook has also become a key tool for the spread of hate speech in this majority Buddhist country. The main targets of these attacks have been those in the Muslim population, particularly the Rohingya Muslims.

Around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Burma, mainly in the western parts of the country. The Rohingya have been engaged in a simmering conflict with the Burma government since 1947.

In Burma, competition over land and resources tends to take place along religious and ethnic lines. Most of the anti-Muslim violence has been centered in Rakhine state.

Online, the Muslims are often referred to as “dogs”. Others speak of their desire to “clean” Burma of all Muslims and of killing anyone who dares to stay. This is not simply a few “crazies” who are inciting violence, it seems clear that this is an organized and well-planned online, and offline, campaign against the Muslim population.

In a recent incident, anti-Muslim extremists threatened to burn down cinemas that were showing a documentary that focused on the violence against Muslims in Burma. In addition, the extremists also threatened to riot again in Meiktila, the site of a violent attack on the Muslim population that left 40 people dead and thousands more displaced. Many of the threats made came via Facebook. The movie was never shown since the theatre owners did not want to be the cause of more violence.

Flower power

A number of movements have emerged that try and fight this rising tide of hate speech and anti-Muslim violence. The “flower” movement, for example, focuses on bringing order to online speech and encourages peaceful interaction. Panzagar, one of the main organizations trying to encourage more peaceful interaction online, has been in operation since 2013.

Organizations like Panzagar walk a fine line. They do not want to encourage the government to crack down on freedom of speech online; instead they want the internet to remain a free and safe place for people to express their feelings. Many of these organizations prefer to simply shine a light on the dark underbelly of Burma’s internet and call attention to those inciting violence.

International organizations such as the United Nations have taken note of the dark side of social media interaction in Burma. These organizations are in the process of developing programs to counter the hate speech and help people deal with the sweeping changes that are occurring within their country.

In the end, however, it is the people of Burma who are ultimately responsible for putting an end to the violence that is happening in their country. The government’s liberalization comes with a price – every individual must be responsible for their actions and not allow themselves to be taken in by false rumors and hate speech online.