Surge of hate speech on social media is already being blamed for outbreaks of violence
Facebook is coming under scrutiny in Myanmar as an unwitting platform for a rising tide of hate speech following a new wave of Buddhist-Muslim bloodshed in the former junta-run country.
The social media site is hugely popular among netizens in the once-isolated nation, where it has become the prime means of sharing news and information for a small but growing Internet community.
But new freedoms under a quasi-civilian government have opened the floodgates for incendiary Internet comment.
A blog alleging the rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men sparked an Internet firestorm last week that led to a riot in the second-largest city Mandalay – the clearest link yet between surging hate speech online and clashes on the streets.
The unrest, which left two dead, raised fears that anti-Muslim violence that had previously gripped more remote parts of the diverse country for two years could spread to other major cities, including Yangon.
“There is petrol spilled across this country, so if there is a spark anywhere it could explode,” said blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt.
Facebook went offline in the country for two straight nights during the recent violence, although the government did not confirm speculation that it had used old junta techniques to curb the spread of inflammatory comment on the Internet.
Facebook said it was aware of the reports of outages, but noted that its site was now working normally.
“It appears our service is available for the people in Myanmar,” a company spokesperson told AFP, declining to provide details of the social network’s activities in the country.
The Internet giant “does not permit hate speech”, according to its published policy standards, nor does it allow content that poses a “direct threat to public safety”.
But the firm relies heavily on users to flag inflammatory content, like Nay Phone Latt’s group Panzagar, which means “Flower Speech”. It has up to 20 volunteers who monitor and report offending Myanmar-language accounts.
A senior official from the Myanmar president’s office told AFP that the authorities had held urgent talks with Facebook international technical staff during the Mandalay violence “to reduce incitement, rumours on the social network and hate speech”.
He said Facebook had agreed to have three dedicated people to communicate with Myanmar and block pages, in line with the firm’s policies.
Web use is rising dramatically, according to the Myanmar Computer Federation, which says that while only around one per cent of the population had access to the Internet two years ago as the country began emerging from military rule, that figure is now 10 per cent.
With the much-anticipated introduction of cheap mobile phone access – and with it mobile Internet – that figure is expected to rocket to 50 per cent of the population, or around 30 million people.
Because of this, “social networks will have an impact not only on us, but future generations”, said the Myanmar official, who added the country needs to set up a robust legal and cultural approach to web posting, including considering restrictions on anonymity.
Experts say that while Facebook will need to boost regulation, the site is so popular it is unlikely to face a total block.
“I don’t think they are going to go in for blocking Facebook, that would cause a revolution on its own,” said a foreign expert on Myanmar who asked not to be named.
“Facebook represents the perfect Burmese tea shop environment – except it has anonymity. It gives people room to vent whatever they want.”
Online vitriol has mushroomed in Myanmar since communal violence in western Rakhine state erupted in 2012, targeting mainly Rohingya Muslims and exposing festering religious tensions that had been largely suppressed by the iron grip of military rule.
Activists warn that the language used by some on social media – such as calling Muslims “dogs” – dangerously dehumanises people of that faith, who make up at least four per cent of the population and are the majority in parts of Rakhine.
President Thein Sein this week spoke out against hate speech, blaming poor education, but his government has been accused of failing to do enough to stop religious unrest.
It has also agreed to consider proposals by Buddhist nationalist monks for legal curbs to religious conversion and interfaith marriage.
A hardline prominent monk, Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, publicised the rape allegations on Facebook just before the violence started.
He then ramped up the tension with claims that the city’s mosques had called for “jihad”, with hundreds of people poised to launch an attack.
But he denies his posts caused the clashes.
“Muslim organisations are the ones responsible for this and are more able to stop it from happening again,” he told AFP last week.
Experts say the firebrand cleric is by no means alone in his hardline stance.
“Hateful, spiteful language is commonplace. Those who use this language are made to feel welcome across the Internet and in day-to-day interactions on the streets,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University.