RANGOON, Burma — For Buddhists in Burma, even a quick scroll through Facebook’s news feed provides fuel for hatred and nationalistic fervor.
An endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province.
Burma was long closed off by a military regime, with centuries-old tensions between its Buddhist and Muslim communities leashed by strict control over traditional media.As the country transitions into democracy, those constraints have loosened and access to the Internet has expanded rapidly, most notably through a Facebook program called Free Basics that has catapulted the platform into prominence as a major source of news in Burma.
But the sudden proliferation of recently available technologies has accelerated the spread of ethnic hatred in Burma, stoking tensions amid a violent military crackdown that has sent more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.
Information-age Burma is defined by Facebook: More people have access to Facebook than have regular electricity in their homes. A recent study found that 38 percent of Facebook users in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
“Burma is experiencing an ugly renaissance of genocidal propaganda,” said Matthew Smith, the co-founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization working in Southeast Asia. “And it spreads like wildfire on Facebook.”
Ruchika Budhraja, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said the company has been ramping up its efforts in Burma to curtail hate speech and has had a Burmese-language team in place to monitor posts “for several years.” Facebook relies on users to flag content that might violate the site’s complicated “community standards.” Misinformation does not qualify for removal on its own but can be removed if it is particularly obscene or contains threats.
The most well-known purveyor of anti-Rohingya social media posts is Ashin Wirathu, an enormously influential hard-line monk who turned to Facebook after he was banned from public preaching for a year by the government. Wirathu likened Muslims to mad dogs and posted pictures of dead bodies he claimed were Buddhists killed by Muslims, while never acknowledging brutality faced by the Rohingya.
Facebook said in a statement that Wirathu’s access to his account had been restricted in the past, and that some content had been removed, but would not say whether the company regularly monitors it for hate speech.
Other Buddhist nationalist monks also use Facebook as a recruiting tool.
One of those monks is Thu Seikta. In a monastery in central Rangoon, Burma’s former capital and largest city, Seikta pulled out a silver tablet and swiped through its applications. Nearby, two junior monks held phones, filming visitors in the hushed, wood-
paneled hall. Cats snoozed on sacks of rice.
Seikta knows well that Facebook isn’t just a place to share ideas but to mobilize followers, too. In April, he advertised a rally he was organizing outside the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon against the State Department’s use of the term “Rohingya” and subsequently called for volunteers to intimidate Muslim shopkeepers who work near the golden-domed Shwedagon Pagoda.
Facebook said that Seikta’s account was being evaluated based on information provided by The Washington Post.
Seikta said the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh since violence broke out in late August made him happy. The Burmese military engaged in what it called “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages and said it targeted only Rohingya militants accused of attacking outposts of the security forces, killing officers and stealing weapons.
“Bengali people are the most dangerous people in the world,” the monk said. “It is natural for them to go to their home place. If they come back, there will be more violence.”
In Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, the term “Bengali” takes on pejorative connotations when used to identify the Rohingya. Much of the propaganda that spreads online reinforces the falsehood that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the group having historical ties to what is now Burma since before the British colonial era. And the first to perpetuate the use of “Bengali” and other falsehoods on Facebook are often government or military accounts.
A recent Facebook post on the page of the office of the Burmese military’s commander in chief — which has more than 2 million followers — detailed the results of an internal investigation that exonerated the military of any persecution of the Rohingya and used the term “Bengali terrorist” 41 times.
An allegation that some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blamed it on Burmese security forces is also common. Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, used his Facebook page to share the claim, along with images since proven to have been doctored. They remain on his page.
The deployment of Facebook by Suu Kyi’s government “smacks of immaturity of governance,” said David Mathieson, an independent Burma analyst formerly with Human Rights Watch. “The military has embraced this as well. The commander in chief [of the armed forces] is a slave to social media.”
Facebook’s reliance on users to flag questionable content means people like Maung Maung Lwin, 29, a waiter at a trendy coffee shop, are left mostly to their own wits to distinguish fact from fake.
Lwin works and lives in Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s Rakhine state, home to most Rohingya before these months of upheaval. He flicked the screen of his Redmi Note 3, an inexpensive Indian-made cellphone, to show the news of the Rohingya crisis on his Facebook feed.
His friend had posted an anti-Rohingya cartoon that shows the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations pushing a Trojan horse full of Rohingya militants into Burma. Farther down, dated photos of dead Burmese soldiers are attached to another post. Lwin dismissed the first cartoon as “too political” and the second as obvious fake news.
Lwin said he could usually tell the difference between real and fake news. But for most, that kind of discernment comes only with experience, and Burma is just entering the digital era.
The Internet’s power seems to have disturbed Burma’s elected government, too — though not out of any apparent concern for the Rohingya. On Nov. 8, Burma’s parliament approved a law that allows the government “to oversee and monitor the misuse of information technology which may harm the character and morality of youths and disrupt tranquility.”
In a post for Facebook’s “Hard Questions” blog, a company vice president wrote of the problem of catching and removing hate speech in Burma.
“We’ve had trouble enforcing this policy correctly recently, mainly due to the challenges of understanding the context; after further examination, we’ve been able to get it right,” he wrote. “But we expect this to be a long-term challenge.”
Bearak reported from Washington.