Who could have predicted that six years after the abolition of military-imposed pre-publication censorship and freeing up of political discourse in Myanmar that the international community would be calling for new limitations on freedom of expression?
This week, Buddhist nationalists hailing from the monastic heartland of the Mandalay Region launched a campaign against Facebook, pushing back as the social media giant has begun to take action against repeat offenders using its platform to disseminate hate speech and incite violence.
A Facebook representative confirmed to Asia Times that the US company has designated anti-Muslim Buddhist monk U Wirathu as a “hate figure” and the Ma Ba Tha radical Buddhist sect he leads as a “hate organization.”
Both have recently been banned from using the social media platform. Military-linked parliamentarian Hla Swe was also temporarily suspended for repeated violations of Facebook policies, though his suspension has since been lifted.
The company’s appraisal of who should be considered a “hate figure” includes those whose ideology, statements or physical actions attack people based on “protected characteristics” such as race, religion, sexuality and others.
“As well as barring them from using Facebook, we will also remove any other profile, page, group or piece of content that praises or supports them,” the Facebook representative told Asia Times.
That’s already causing a stir among free speech advocates. “It is a violation of freedom of expression,” Thuseitta, a member of the Patriotic Myanmar Monks’ Union, told Reuters, while indicating that this would not silence his group. “We will keep using Facebook with different names and accounts to tell the truth to people.”
U Wirathu, once branded by Time magazine as the face of “Buddhist terror”, has likewise indicated he will not be silenced by Facebook’s ban. The firebrand monk recently set up his own website, wirathu.com, and his own internet radio station to continue disseminating his sermons and pronouncements.
Facebook has come under heavy fire for its perceived failure to address the spread of virulent hate speech and incitement on its platform, particularly in connection with last year’s violent purge of minority Rohingya from northern Rakhine state.
The US company has responded by sending a delegation to Myanmar, as well as ramping up recruitment efforts for Burmese speakers — although the exact number of hires remains unclear.
It is also taking steps toward greater transparency on certain fronts, with sections of its website dedicated to government data requests, content restrictions and internet disruptions.
All of this is cautiously being regarded as a positive development in the tech community.
For all the press coverage about the spread of hate speech in Myanmar, one could be forgiven for thinking the link is so direct and causal that pogroms were events organized on Facebook.
However, this is not quite a “machete in one hand and a transistor radio in the other” situation, as former US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the role of hate speech broadcasts on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s genocidal spasm of violence.
While Facebook tries to understand and counter how its platform is being weaponized, the suggestion that “jamming the broadcasts” will make a positive difference is already coming under scrutiny. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, some observers say.
Today in Myanmar there is alarmingly high popular buy-in to varying extent of the conspiracy theory that the West is seeking to undermine the Myanmar government and advance a pro-Muslim agenda by shrieking about human rights and ignoring the concurrent atrocities committed by Rohingya insurgents.
The widely accepted but convoluted theory claims it is all part of an elaborate cabal bankrolled with petro-dollars by a nefarious triumvirate of the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
In this climate, without striving for greater transparency in its clampdown on incitement and hate speech from all parties, Facebook runs the risk of being seen as a foreign tool for silencing “patriotic” voices and exacerbating an already rising nationalist persecution complex.
As decades of censorship and repression in Myanmar showed, particularly in the case of previously persecuted pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, silencing people often gives them martyr status. It may have escaped many Myanmar nationalists’ attention, but content deemed as supporting Rohingya militants represented by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has also recently been removed by Facebook.
While fear-mongering occupies much of Ma Ba Tha’s and other hardline nationalist groups’ messaging, it’s far from their only activity. Ma Ba Tha also performs more benign public works, including blood donation drives and fundraising for healthcare for the rural poor. They have also successfully pushed legislation to the forefront of the national legislative agenda.
Meanwhile, parliamentarian Hla Swe shot to prominence in the English-language press after an anti-LGBT Facebook rant in which he made a jocular confession to the commission of homophobic war crimes. He was at one point elected to serve as an MP and is now the publisher of a popular news journal.
While Facebook’s removal of specific and actionable incitement and hate speech is a no-brainer, the banning of legitimate organizations and public figures — no matter how problematic – leads into fairly murky and uncharted territory.
The message needs to be driven home that hate speech and incitement to violence are universally unacceptable, and a big part of doing so successfully will be providing a forum for people to deconstruct it.
It goes without saying that Facebook’s new team of Burmese-speaking content-sifters will be very busy. This kind of reactive approach to censoring hate speech will presumably get easier with time: refining of artificial intelligence (AI) interventions will speed the process. However, this is not without its pitfalls.
One of Facebook’s earliest AI-based interventions in Myanmar’s context was the much-ridiculed initiative to ban the word “kalar.” Kalar means foreign, and is used as a casual if not racist epithet for those with dark skin, including the Rohingya. Similarly, it can be weaponized and deployed as a racial slight.
Facebook’s decision to ban the term may have seemed prudent at its headquarters, were it not for the fact kalar as a prefix in the local language has some rather more prosaic applications. A chair, for example, is a kalar-thaing.
The use of automated censorship mechanisms could likely see constructive discussion quashed alongside hate speech, as anyone airing an opinion on chairs last year will be able to attest.
As has been noted elsewhere, state media has done a fairly impressive job propagating dehumanizing and incendiary rhetoric (see, for example, its use of “detestable human fleas” and “thorn that needs removing” in vague reference to persecuted minorities.)
It is the sort of rhetoric that history has shown presages mass atrocities. The international concern is warranted: if there were such thing as a Bingo card for genocide precursors, Myanmar has but a few more boxes to tick.
Meanwhile, there has been little discussion over how effectively Facebook has been used as a platform for distributing pro-military propaganda. Government bodies and military figures enjoy “verified” status on Facebook, while the Ministry of Information occasionally boosts posts of dubious veracity.
However, there is no way to see which posts have been boosted at the expiration of a campaign. On this front, there is arguably a pressing need for greater transparency when it comes to Facebook’s advertising model.
As a direct link between citizen and government, Facebook occupies a unique and important place in Myanmar’s political context. And despite recent criticism of the social media platform’s role in spreading hate speech, it’s difficult to envision that changing any time soon.
Calls for Facebook to take more proactive action should not drown out the very real need for the Myanmar government and its citizens to take practical steps towards reconciliation and away from fear-mongering. What needs to change is the message, not just the medium.