Rohingya Muslim women who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh stretch their arms out to collect aid distributed by relief agencies in this September 2017 photo. A campaign of killings, rape and arson attacks by security forces and Buddhist-aligned mobs have sent more than 850,000 of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya fleeing. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)
New technology can have profound impacts on society in ways never intended.
The radio carried codes during the First World War, but later became a household fixture. Early telephones were leased in pairs but after Western Union, a telegraph company, adopted “exchanges,” it led to rapid long-distance communication. Likewise, mobile phones have evolved from bulky “walkie-talkies” to small supercomputers.
And now Facebook, originally a connection platform for university students, conjoins one in four people. But today, in Myanmar, Facebook is helping fuel a genocide against the Rohingya people.
Based on our research in Myanmar and in Cuba, we argue that internet usage in Myanmar is dangerous. Unbridled connection to Facebook creates what we call a “virtual coercive,” a digital space that bolsters coercion. We suggest that Cuba’s internet model may provide lessons to manage social media amid political chaos.
The utility of inventions can be unpredictable, and so too can the social impacts be catastrophic.
Distracted driving is an unforeseen consequence of mobile phones that kills or maims thousands each year. Dealing with distracted driving involves better driver education, curbing usage behind the wheel and penalties for stupidity.
Radio enabled unimaginable horrors during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
But in conditions of genocide, can a technology like radio be limited or restricted? It’s an essential service, but with blood on its hands. That’s a burden Facebook now shares.
In 2010, Myanmar had 130,000 heavily restricted internet users. In seven years, SIM card prices plunged from more than US$3,000 to $1. The government also relaxed censorship laws, allowing Facebook to attract 30 million Burmese users. Many of them view Facebook as the internet.
Beginning in late August, Burmese security forces pursued a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya. Some 6,700 were killed and 645,000 were forced to to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Along with ultra-nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, a host of Facebook pages spread hate speech. This vitriolic propaganda further vilifies the already marginalized and much-maligned Rohingya.
Myanmar’s radical Buddhist monk, the anti-Muslim Ashin Wirathu, is seen here in Sri Lanka in 2014. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Anti-Rohingya content includes explicitly racist political cartoons, falsified images and staged news reports. This content goes viral, normalizing hate speech and shaping public perception. Violence against Rohingya people is increasingly welcomed, and then celebrated online. This virtual coercive serves the Myanmar military’s interests.
The military junta’s monopoly on information has provided little arena to foster media literacy. Such propaganda in this virtual coercive of anti-Rohingya propaganda preys upon the ill-informed. For many, the misinformation spread through Facebook justifies what the United Nations has dubbed a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar citizens now have unbridled access to low-cost internet on their mobile devices. Freedom of speech advocates will laud this. But this open information pipeline reinforces Facebook’s dark side of self-reaffirmation with limited perspective.
This is to the Burmese military’s advantage. Just as radio fuelled genocide in the 1990s, Facebook is making it happen in Myanmar today.