Facebook Let Myanmar Perpetrate Genocide
A timeline for horror
During the infamous Rwandan genocide of 1994, radio stations such as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines helped foment—and later, even directed—the violence and atrocities of nationalist militias, filling the airwaves with hateful messages exhorting Hutus to slaughter the Tutsi minority and their allies, whom they labeled as “cockroaches” and “traitors.”
Two decades later, the media landscape in the developing world has changed considerably—and violent nationalistic propaganda has adopted new techniques technology to fit the information age.
Thus in April 2018 Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, made an extraordinary mea culpa. The purveyor of Likes and Friends and Years in Review was an unwitting accessory to the slaughter and rape of thousands of men, women and children in a developing country.
The social media giant banned top officials of the Myanmar government from its platform on the basis of an unprecedented violation of terms of service: using its platform to foment the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Subsequent investigations by the United Nations, Reuters and The New York Times have revealed that violent rhetoric—and violent consequences—were not an accidental outgrowth of an impassioned mob, but a calculated campaign implemented by hundreds of Myanmar government soldiers and authorized by the highest levels of military leadership to build popular support for genocidal acts—and then persuade the public to disbelieve the evidence of its own atrocities.
Initially lacking personnel fluent with Myanmar and its language, Facebook failed to act upon multiple early warnings that its was being exploited to promote violence until after thousands of Rohingya had been killed and raped and more than 700,000 forced to flee their homes.
Readers should be advised that examples of racist posts come from the report the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission published on Sept. 12, 2018. I cite them to remove the abstraction from what “hate speech” entails, and in no way do I intend to condone the hateful sentiments.
The Buddhist Bamar people makeup two-thirds of Myanmar’s population; the remaining one-third is divided among dozens of ethnic minorities, some of which have rebelled against state authority ever since the country’s inception as Burma in 1948.
The Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, became infamous for its involvement in mass killings, rape and drug-trafficking in its campaigns to suppress minority armies. In 1962, the army seized power and instituted totalitarian military rule which lasted for a half-century. The ruling junta renamed the country Myanmar in 1989.
Both the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine are impoverished ethnic minorities inhabiting a state in coastal southwestern Burma formerly known as Arakan. The Rohingya and Rakhine both maintain they are descendants of an ancient Arakan kingdom, though the former group has been substantially swelled by immigration from neighboring Bangladesh in the last five hundred years.
As a result, Buddhist nationalists claim the Rohingya — who have lived in the region for centuries — are racially inferior illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The military junta launched a violent crackdown targeting the Rohingya in 1978, then revoked their citizenship in 1982, leaving them stateless, and renamed Arakan as “Rakhine State.”
When Myanmar began a partial transition to civilian rule in 2011, only one percent of the population had access to the Internet, and cell phones were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen. Deregulation of the state-controlled telecom industry changed that virtually overnight—the cost of SIM cards fell from $200 to $2, and phones with free access to Facebook proliferated across the country.
Facebook eventually became “the Internet” for newly-connected Burmese, who relied on it as a news and messaging service. The Myanmar government even used it to release official announcements.
Today, there 18 million Facebook users in Myanmar—roughly one third of the population. However, though the social media company claimed 90 percent of the social media market in Myanmar, until 2015 it had only two Burmese-speaking employees, and its automatic translation software, designed to flag posts that appeared to incite violence, struggled to parse Burmese script and fonts, let alone unique Burmese idioms. Sub-contractors responsible for reviewing flagged posts were also non-proficient in the language.
One problem, according to the U.N. report, is that hate speech made heavy use of slurs unknown to machine translators. This included terms such as Kalar (dark-skinned South Asians) or Khoe Win Bengali (“Bengalis who sneaked in”), Kway Kalar (“Muslim dogs”), Ro-gein-nya (“lying dogs”) and Yay myaw Kan Tin (“trash floating along the river of unknown origin”).
In June 2012, a claim that a Rakhine woman had been raped by Rohingya led to sustained rioting that killed 50 Rohingya and 30 Rakhine and drove 140,000 from their homes. Facebook users posted images from wars and disasters in other countries and attributed them to supposed Rohingya atrocities, and a group called “Kalar Beheading Gang” formed.
Rohingya terrorists as members of the RSO are crossing the border into Myanmar with weapons. … Our troops have received the news in advance so they will completely destroy them [the Rohingya]. It can be assumed that the troops are already destroying them [the Rohingya]. We don’t want to hear any humanitarian or human rights excuses. We don’t want to hear your moral superiority, or so-called peace and loving kindness. — Facebook post by presidential spokesman Zaw Htay on June 1, 2012.
Between 2013 and 2015, Facebook social media entrepreneurs and government officials repeatedly met with Facebook to express concerns about the proliferation of racist and violent rhetoric on social media, as well as false media stories intended to flag tensions.
On one occasion, an entrepreneur pointed out a Facebook group called “We will genocide all of the Muslims and feed them to the dogs.” Facebook removed the specific page and claimed that it would address the problem by releasing a new community standards policy translated into Burmese.
Civil society actors such as the Buddhist ultra-nationalist MaBaTha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) and the monk Ashin Wirathu generated some of the hate speech. According to the U.N. report, consistent narratives in anti-Rohingya propaganda are claims that they are Bengali invaders that will “take over” Burma. That people of Bengali descent are an inferior race that will corrupt the purity of the Burmese people through intermarriage. Or that Muslims have “profane” religious customs such as halal butchery and the wearing of head scarves.
In July 2014, tensions exploded again. Ashin Wirathu shared a Facebook post falsely claiming that a Rohingya man had raped a Rakhine woman, leading to violent riots in Mandalay that killed two. The Burmese government attempted to contact Facebook to request the posts be taken down, but could not get in touch.
Ultimately, the government temporarily cut Facebook access in the region and brought the riots under control, showing that Yangon understood the role the social media could play in sparking violence.
Then in 2015, the NLD party banned all Muslims from running for office in the country’s first ostensibly fully democratic elections—despite several having been elected in the previous elections in support of the NLD party—and deemed hundreds of thousands of them ineligible to vote.
One prominent Muslim Myanmar human rights lawyer, U Ko Ni, opposed the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya despite being an important advisor of Aung Suu Kyi’s NLD party.
NLD … you need to eradicate this Nga Ni (“dog”). […] Mout Kalar (“Muslim South Asians”) and the president should not be together. We don’t want a Nga Ni. […] There is no time to sit and wait. This is the time to stand up and kick him out. — Facebook comment by Ashin Wirathu on Oct. 9, 2016
Three months later, U Ko Ni was standing at an airport terminal holding his grandson in his arms when an assassin gunned him down, then killed a taxi driver coming to his aid.
However, in 2018 sources told reporters from Reuters and The New York Times that starting in 2014 the Burmese army secretly assigned more than 700 military personnel to units stationed in the foot hills of Naypyidaw, specifically tasked with disseminating anti-Rohingya messages.
These units drew on propaganda techniques cultivated during the years of military rule. However, the officers had also received special training in Russia in hacking, programming and psychological warfare which they used in the anti-Rohingya campaign.
The Burmese cyberwarriors built up dozens of Facebook pages posing as news, celebrity and supermodel sites full of images of glamorous women, with pages titled “Beauty and Classic” and “Young Female Teachers.” They also took over the page of a popular sniper named Ohn Maung and a blog called “Opposite Eyes.” Then they inserted racist messages concerning the Rohingya, posted fake photos of supposed Rohingya atrocities and even spread false rumors undermining the credibility of the civilian government. They also trolled any posts portraying the military in an unfavorable light.
Researchers estimate the cyberwarriors generated two-thirds of anti-Rohingya hate speech on social media.
The covert campaign had an official face, too. The commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had both an official and personal Facebook page, with 2.9 million and 1.4 million subscribers respectively, involved in disseminating anti-Rohingya posts.
The general posted a photo from the Pakistani army’s 1971 crackdown in Bangladesh and claimed it was a current Rohingya atrocity and stated in a Facebook post that the Rohingya people “did not exist.”
The Bengali population exploded and the aliens tried to seize the land of local ethnics … Race cannot be swallowed by the ground but only by another race. — Facebook post on Sept. 21, 2017 by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing
There wre more nefarious schemes. In September 2017, the military covertly sent messages via Facebook Messenger warning Buddhist of an impending attack by Rohingya jihadis. At the same time it messaged Rohingya group in the region warning them of imminent protests by Buddhist nationalists!
These tactics bring to mind Russian operations in the United States simultaneously organizing opposing left-wing and right-wing protests.
At top — displaced Rohingya. Above — Rohingya flee into Bangladesh in 2017. Photos via Wikipedia
For years, foreign observers remarked on the surprising lack of organized resistance by Rohingya despite mounting state violence and repression which led to many being forced to flee the country or live in displacement camps under abominable conditions.
That changed in Oct. 9, 2016 when a militant group later dubbed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army mounted a series of attacks on Burmese military outposts. The 400 attackers, armed mostly with slingshots and knives and just a few IEDs and automatic weapons, killed nine soldiers and sustained eight losses.
The government retaliated swiftly and brutally, dispatching 2,000 soldiers on “clearance operations” in October and November which involved mass-killings and gang-rapes in nearby communities, leading between 60,000 to 90,000 Rohingya to flee. The Tatmadaw also began recruiting an ethnic Rakhine militia to assist in attacks.
On Aug. 25, 2017 hundreds of ARSA militants launched a second series of attacks, targeting 24 to 30 police posts and burning down the Rakhine town of At Htet Pyu Ma.
This time, the Burmese army deployed an armored brigade with 60 tanks and APCs and nine infantry battalions from its elite 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions—units infamous for atrocities committed in Kachin and Shan regions in northern Myanmar. The objective of the “clearance operation” was to drive out all “illegal immigrants” out of Rakhine state into Bangladesh.
Soldiers referred on Facebook to a strategy called “Four Cuts” first used against in Kachin state — cutting off Rohingya insurgents from food, finances, intelligence and recruits.
The Tatmadaw pursued these goals by burning down Rohingya communities, cutting refugees off from food aid, and terrorizing the Rohingya populous through mass killings, torture and rape—a strategy a barrage of Facebook posts had helped ‘justify’ in advance.
The 99th handled the northern sector and played a “central role” in the “clearance” of the northern town of Min Gyi. Soldiers instructed Rohingya villagers to evacuate to a beach while they burned down their homes. Then the soldiers killed all the village men who obeyed, hacked most of the children to death, raped 400 women and then locked them into houses and set them on fire. The 99th remained in the Min Gyi area through November.
The 33rd “cleared” the southern sector, notably the towns of Maungdaw and Rathedaung—their movements traceable via Facebook posts. They reportedly murdered most of the adult male Rohingya population in the former town. The Rakhine militia, Burmese Border Guard and Field Police also joined in, and allowed their compounds to be used for torture and gang rapes.
Have been wanting to kill these Kalar for so long. Only got to kill them just now. — Facebook post by police officer in Rakhine State on Aug. 27, 2017
Later, U.N. investigators remarked that numerous Rohingya women they interviewed were scarred with bite marks incurred from Tatmadaw soldiers, and their children and babies scorched by fire.
The military claimed the Rohingya had burned their own villages. The United Nations found no evidence of this. However, ARSA did kill some suspected informants and stands accused of an attack that killed 100 Hindu villagers, though the perpetrators could not be confirmed.
By the end of the campaign, the Tatmadaw had killed 10,000 to 14,000 Rohingya and driven 700,000 into Bangladesh—three-fifths of them children. A survey by MSF estimated that 10 percent of the dead were children age five and under, three-fifths of whom had been shot and another 15 percent burned to death.
There is exaggeration to say that the number of Bengali fleeing to Bangladesh is very large … documentary photos show that those Bengali conveniently left for Bangladesh but they did not flee from Myanmar in panic. — Facebook posts by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on Oct. 11 and 12, 2017
However, the military and its supporters understood that ethnic cleansing would not be favorably perceived by the outside world, and directed Facebook propaganda towards denying the allegations of atrocities and hounding and trolling those attempting to investigate it.
Twitter was also briefly used for a clearly artificial surge of hate propaganda late 2017. The platform otherwise had a limited user base in Myanmar.
Accusations of genocide are unfounded, because those that the Myanmar army is killing are not people, but animals. We won’t go to Hell for killing these creatures that are not worth to be humans. — Twitter comment on Sept. 29, 2017
Myanmar government investigators pressured a Rohingya woman named Jamilida to describe an incident of alleged rape on video. Though she testified that women she saw taken away by soldiers returned with bleeding genitals, the ‘investigators’ mistranslated her statements and claimed they proved she had stated she denied any rapes took place.
She described “only” having her clothes torn off and being groped by Tatmadaw soldiers. Later she claimed the soldiers had forced sexual intercourse with her as well, but that her interviewers had intimidated her into saying otherwise. Pres. Aung Suu Kyi then posted the video on her Facebook page as proof of “fake rape” allegations.
Whore, no one wants to rape you with your fucking face. We don’t even want to be within 10 feet vicinity from you, because you stink like a fucking Kalar. — The “most relevant” Facebook comment in response to the video on the president of Myanmar’s Facebook page dated August 2018
By April 2018, Zuckerberg finally publicly admitted Facebook had a genocide problem, around the same time the social media giant was coming to terms with the extent that Russian trolls had infiltrated the platform to manipulate public opinion before the 2016 U.S. election. The company increased Burmese-speaking staff to 60, and should have 100 by the end of 2018.
However, Facebook continued to lag well behind the output of hate speech. On several occasions, the company seemed to rely on tips cited by external investigators to take down individual violence-inciting posts that had been viewed by tens of thousands of users.
Facebook eventually banned the accounts of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Ashin Wirathu. Then in August 2018, it removed 52 pages and 10 groups created by the Myanamar government’s propaganda campaign. Between them, these counted 12 million subscribers—nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s population.
Nationalists in Myanmar reacted angrily to the Facebook bans—and posted their ire on Facebook, naturally. “Move to VK, which is suitable for nationalists,” presidential advisor U Nay Zin Latt wrote. “Leave dictator Facebook.”
VKontake, or VK, is the dominant Russian social network. However, exhortation to genocide apparently “violated terms of service” on Vkontakte, too. The Russia social media platform banned Wirathu, U Nay Zin Latt and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in August 2018 after “numerous user complaints.”
Many of the techniques deployed by the Myanmar military are clearly similar to those successfully employed by domestic and foreign social media manipulators in the United States. Systematic dismissal of unfavorable news coverage as “fake news,” adoption of dehumanizing terms for opposing political groups, attribution of false or exaggerated violence to minorities and “immigrants” to justify force and violent “tough talk” and extreme rhetoric that makes real-life violence all the more likely.