Combatting Online Hate Speech in Myanmar

They noticed the signboard as soon as they arrived at the village of Kone Thar. The message seemed clear enough: “No Muslims allowed in this village!”

It turned out to be more complicated though — there had recently been a conflict between the Buddhist and Hindu communities in the local area, part of Mandalay division in central Myanmar. So why did these Buddhist villagers have problems with Muslims? As the trainers soon found out, local villagers viewed both Hindus and Muslims as “Kalars,” a widespread slur in Myanmar for people of Indian origin, most of whom are descendants from immigrants brought by the British during colonial rule — when Myanmar was a part of British India.

Creating safe spaces online

Hsu Hsu and Hein, who had come to Kone Thar to lead a “Safe Online Space” (SOS) training organized by Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), realized that this workshop was going to be more sensitive than some of the other trainings they had held. Rumors abounded in the village relating to a case of intermarriage between a Buddhist and a Hindu. Local Buddhists told Hsu Hsu that “they accept diversity but there is a responsibility to maintain their religion. They don’t hate ‘Muslims’ but they are afraid of them,” she recalled.

Journalists sit in an open air classroom
A “Safe Online Space” (SOS) training organized by Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO). Credit: MIDO

During the three-day workshop, one of the participants, a teacher at a public school, explained more. “We are afraid of Kalars, mainly because of the news we see on the Internet.”

In Myanmar Facebook is the Internet, used as a key source of news and information as well as a social network. It has also become an easy way to spread rumors and dangerous speech, often against Muslims.

Mandalay is the heartland of the radical Buddhist Ma Ba Tha movement, whose leader, the monk U Wirathu, is based in a monastery in the region. Ma Ba Tha has proven particularly sophisticated in using Facebook for attacks on Muslims. Posts widely shared on Facebook, such as fake news about rapes that never occurred, have helped inflame sectarian Buddhist-Muslim violence that has cost hundreds of lives in various parts of Myanmar since 2012.

Screenshot from Facebook showing a posting where someone is being attacked
A screenshot of some of the viral images that portray Muslims as being dangerous. Screenshot by: MIDO

Burmese villagers with little education like those in Kone Thar, who cannot even tell a Hindu from a Muslim, easily fall prey to such propaganda. “Some users believe whatever they see on Facebook and share it without first finding out if the post is true or false,” noted Gar Gar, MIDO’s project coordinator. It is very widespread for Burmese to use nicknames on Facebook rather than their real names, which makes it even more difficult for users to understand where controversial information originates.

Training finds an unexpected audience

But in Kone Thar, MIDO’s SOS training workshop could make a difference. Somewhat unexpectedly, it attracted not only members of local community-based organizations working on issues such as land rights, but also followers of the Ma Ba Tha. They had misunderstood it for a training in how to make one’s social media communication more efficient.

But instead, when Hsu Hsu and Hein spoke about how social media can either be used to mobilize communities for peace, or to stir up conflicts through dangerous speech and spreading online rumors, it triggered an open conversation. “I am surprised to see that your theory looks exactly like what has been happening here,” the local teacher confessed. “It means somebody is deliberately trying to organize riots. It is important that we realize this and don’t fall for it. I’ll try to pass on this knowledge and message to my friends.”

A trainer stands in front of a class pointing at the projection screen
A “Safe Online Space” (SOS) training organized by Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO). Credit: MIDO

Hsu Hsu is a Buddhist herself. “But as a trainer, it is vital to be neutral when we discuss religious issues,” she emphasized. “The participants came to accept that every religion has its own way to peace and we have to avoid blind nationalism in order to live in harmony. Their mindset has changed positively.”

Online hate speech (not necessarily limited to what legally qualifies as hate speech in certain countries, but more broadly systematic attacks on vulnerable groups such as ethnic and religious minorities) has recently become a concern in many democracies. It is a tricky issue — research has shown that the political context is crucial, and it is not easy to pick out hate speech just by searching online platforms for certain key words, for example.

MIDO’s monitoring of problematic Facebook accounts, which was supported by Internews along with the Safe Online Space trainings around last year’s elections in Myanmar, found that many posts simply tried to insinuate links between Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and Muslims — in order to discredit the popular leader with the country’s Buddhist majority. Possibly because of the paranoia created by this campaign, the NLD did not dare field a single Muslim candidate and has been extremely cautious in talking about sectarian violence.

In a research project with Oxford University, MIDO identified certain patterns that are commonly used in hate speech. In Myanmar, as elsewhere, it is very common for example to frame the targeted group as a “threat” of some sort — which then leads to villagers such as those in Kone Thar being afraid of Muslims or “Kalars.”

Most anti-hate speech projects combine various approaches and experiments to find the best ways to tackle the issue — research, social media monitoring, dialogues and briefings for journalists, civil society groups and other key stakeholders, and digital media literacy trainings. The right answer also depends on the specific case — for example, to what extent the hate speech campaigns are coordinated, as appears to be the case in Myanmar, where columnist Mon Mon Myat who has been tracking notoriously malicious Facebook pages found that they originated from the same IP address.

For Internews, combating online hate speech is becoming more important, as the bullying on social media significantly restricts the ability of marginalized groups, such as women and LGBTI activists, to raise their voices. It has been shown to lead to self-censorship, or to victims of online abuse deactivating their accounts because they cannot tolerate the harassment.

Thomas Baerthlein is Internews’ Program Manager for Multi-Country Projects. Internews’ work with MIDO was supported by the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)

Banner photo by Seth Tisue/Flickr/CC)