POST TIME: 13 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
The country where Facebook posts whipped up hate

The country where Facebook posts whipped up hate

Decades of ethnic and religious tensions, a sudden explosion of internet access, and a company that had trouble identifying and removing the most hateful posts, reports BBC.

It all added up to a perfect storm in Myanmar, where the United Nations says Facebook had a “determining role” in whipping up anger against the Rohingya minority.

“I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended,” Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said in March.

The company admits failures and has moved to address the problems. But how did Facebook’s dream of a more open and connected world go wrong in one south-east Asian country?

“Nowadays, everyone can use the internet,” says Thet Swei Win, director of Synergy, an organisation that works to promote social harmony between ethnic groups in Myanmar.

That wasn’t the case in Myanmar five years ago.

Outside influence had been kept to a minimum during the decades when the military dominated the country. But with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her election as Myanmar’s de facto leader, the government began to liberalise business - including, crucially, the telecoms sector.

And after they bought an inexpensive phone and a cheap SIM card, there was one app that everybody in Myanmar wanted: Facebook. The reason? Google and some of the other big online portals didn’t support Burmese text, but Facebook did.

“People were immediately buying internet accessible smart phones and they wouldn’t leave the shop unless the Facebook app had been downloaded onto their phones,” Mearns says.

Thet Swei Win believes that because the bulk of the population had little prior internet experience, they were especially vulnerable to propaganda and misinformation.

“We have no internet literacy,” he told Trending. “We have no proper education on how to use the internet, how to filter the news, how to use the internet effectively. We did not have that kind of knowledge.”

Out of a population of about 50 million, around 18 million in Myanmar are regular Facebook users.

But Facebook and the telecoms companies which gave millions their first access to the internet do not appear to have been ready to grapple with the ethnic and religious tensions inside the country.

The enmity goes deep. Rohingyas are denied Burmese citizenship. Many in the Buddhist ruling class do not even consider them a distinct ethnic group - instead they refer to them as “Bengalis”, a term that deliberately emphasises their separateness from the rest of the country.

Last year’s military operation in the north-west Rakhine state was designed, the government says, to root out militants. It resulted in more than 700,000 people fleeing for neighbouring Bangladesh - something that the United Nations calls the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

A UN report has said top military figures in Myanmar must be investigated for genocide in Rakhine state and crimes against humanity in other areas. But the government of Myanmar has rejected those allegations.

The combination of ethnic tensions and a booming social media market was toxic. Since the beginning of mass internet use in Myanmar, inflammatory posts against Rohingya have regularly appeared on Facebook,