When I met the war photographer, he was having his morning coffee on the beach. He had already been in Cox’s Bazar for a month for The New York Times and had no idea when he was going back home.
“I’ve been tracking what’s happening to the Rohingya for three years,” he told me. “I went all through Myanmar. You could see this coming. It’s been coming all that time.”
He meant the genocidal violence that erupted on August 25th and sent 700,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.
“How could you tell it was coming?” I asked. He smiled wryly—war photographers always smile wryly right before they deliver a deft point.
“Ever hear of Facebook?” he asked.
What the photographer had been following—and what I for one had no idea about—was Facebook’s role in inciting the violence. There are more than 30 million Facebook users in Myanmar, up from 2 million in 2014, according to CBS News. It comes preinstalled in increasingly affordable smartphones. And, over the course of 2017, when polls found 73 percent of the population relied on Facebook for news and 85 percent of Myanmar’s internet traffic flowed through the site, there was a massive spike in hate-speech posts from ultra-nationalist Buddhists and shared by government officials.
Posts ranged from fabricated news articles to faked photos and anti-Rohingya cartoons, and dehumanizing language. If this starts to sound a lot like Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda, or Slobodan Milosevic’s use of Radio Television of Serbia, or the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich, welcome to the roadmap of a 21st Century genocide.
The Rohingya minority were portrayed as an existential threat to the Buddhist majority, and Facebook groups called for actions like boycotts, harassment and even deadly violence.
Digital researchers now have found evidence of these flare-ups coinciding with the military’s latest operations against the Rohingya.
By late March, Marzuki Darusman, head of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said Facebook “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict” in Myanmar. UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee went even further: “Facebook,” she proclaimed, “has now turned into a beast.”
Facebook might be the de facto internet in Myanmar, but that’s true in other countries with readily available SIM cards and limited broadband. In 2013, when I went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with the FDLR militia—comprised of former genocidaires who fled across the border from Rwanda—I used Facebook, because it was their main tool of communication. It still is. When they wanted to let me know in 2016 that they were displeased with how they were featured in my film? Facebook again.
The assumption, though, has been that social media would be the medium for communication—by bringing “real” people into a conversation happening in “real time”, we could go beyond a mere flat photo in a newspaper. We could reach each other on a new, more visceral level, creating more empathy.
And some of that has happened. The Rohingya are an example here, too: Facebook was the primary tool used by activists and witnesses to document the violence. But the main takeaway from the past few months, even by no less than Mark Zuckerberg himself, is that Facebook was used relentlessly to foment the genocide—and the first step in that process was “othering” the Rohingya.
The “othering” process requires several tactics. One of these is controlling the narrative. In this case, it is social media that is the mechanism of control. And here, the Rohingya are severely disadvantaged.
It’s not the lack of smartphones—although as the violence rose in 2017, the Rohinyga were hamstrung by the fact that Myanmar policy made it illegal for them to possess a SIM card. We saw many refugees who have smartphones now. But the problem is that Rohingya is not a written language, and less than 20 percent of Rohingya know how to speak or write Burmese, according to Voice of America.
So, the social media narrative remains firmly in the control of those who can salt it with hate and incitement to violence. Although Facebook has tried to take steps to prevent its platform from being weaponized, it remains vulnerable to exploitation.
As the world community grapples with the destiny of the Rohingya—and the crimes committed against them—it will be crucial to factor in the existential threat that social media represents to them. It is still far too easy to spread, overnight, incendiary conspiracies and hate language, especially when the Rohingya have very few options on battling back. And we as humanity should debate thoroughly what responsible social media engagement is—and what the penalties are for weaponized use.
The war photographer eventually did make it home, by the way—he wrote me later to say he was taking his kids off of Facebook. Of course, he sent this to me…via Facebook Messenger.