Myanmar's social media genocide

Rohingyas take part in "Genocide Remembrance Day" rally at a refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh on Aug. 25, 2022. (AFP)

Social media is a powerful tool, for both good and ill. In Myanmar, social media — and Facebook in particular — has been put to cruel and dangerous use.

In Myanmar, as in other countries, before the most recent episode of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, racists and bigots took to Facebook to spread their ideas. Celebrity Buddhist monks, most notably Ashin Wirathu, used Facebook to spread hatred and lies about the Rohingya.

Wirathu posted incendiary racist sermons to his millions of followers, in which he called the Rohingya “Bengalis” in a bid to convince his fellow Burmese that they were foreign interlopers rather than fellow citizens; claimed that the Rohingya were responsible for spates of crimes across the country; and demanded that they be driven out of the country, whatever that required.

So virulent was his rhetoric that Facebook eventually, in 2018, blocked Wirathu’s page for violating its terms of service relating to the promotion of violence. This came after widespread condemnation of Facebook, including a research paper from two Australian academics, who claimed that the site was “helping fuel a genocide against the Rohingya people.”

Wirathu was not alone. Before the most recent episode of genocide began in 2017 — when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced from their homes, murdered in large numbers and driven out of the country — content denouncing the Rohingya as foreign invaders, serial criminals and terrorists was common online. This was notably true on Facebook, a service used by many in Myanmar from the very first time they started using the internet.

Researchers allege that the lack of digital literacy of newly online Burmese meant that wild claims and deranged rhetoric traveled further in Myanmar than it would have in other, more jaundiced markets.

The Myanmar Internet Project, a collective of scholars and activists, documented the beginnings of an explicitly anti-Rohingya campaign. Facebook, the project’s report notes, “was instrumental to the emergence of a mass Buddhist nationalist movement, which grew from 2012 to 2015 to encompass hundreds of thousands of members across the country and came to be known as Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar).”