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Fake news on Facebook fans the blazes of hate against the Rohingya in Burma

For Buddhists in Burma, alike an active scroll through Facebook’s news feed gives fuel for hate and loyal fervor.

A continuous stream of offensive 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 alleging the military of bringing out atrocities against the Rohingya to assist terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and divide out a separatist Islamic zone.

Burma was long closed off by a military rule, with centuries-old tensions between its Budd­hist and Muslim communities corded by strict control over classical media.As the nation transitions into democracy, those pressure have loosened and access to the Internet has increased quickly, most greatly through a Facebook program called Free Basics that has batter the platform into eminence as a major source of news in Burma.

But the abrupt proliferation of newly available technologies has accelerated the advance of ethnic hatred in Burma, stoking tensions amid a violent military strike that has sent more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.

Information-age Burma is decided by Facebook: More people have approach to Facebook than have regular electricity in their houses. A study found that 38 % of Facebook customers in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the website. And news feeds in Burma are alive with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by natural people but also by senior military officers and the agent for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

“Burma is facing 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 increases like wildfire on Facebook.”

Ruchika Budhraja, an agent for Facebook, said the company has been ramping up its efforts in Burma to diminish hate speech and has had a Burmese-language team in place to monitor posts “for several years.” Facebook relies on customers to flag content that might violate the site’s complicated “community standards.” Misinformation does not enable for removal on its own but can be deleted if it is particularly bawdy or contains threats.

The most well-known curator of anti-Rohingya social media posts is Ashin Wirathu, an enormously famous hard-line monk who turned to Facebook after he was banned from public sermon for a year by the government. Wirathu likened Muslims to mad dogs and posted images of dead bodies he claimed were Buddhists killed by Muslims, while never acknowledging cruelty faced by the ­Rohingya.

Facebook said in a statement that Wirathu’s access to his account had been barred 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 drafting tool.

One of those monks is Thu Seikta. In a monastery in central Rangoon, Burma’s former capital and biggest 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 organize 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 later called for volunteers to awe Muslim shopkeepers who work near the golden-domed Shwedagon Pagoda.

Seikta said the Rohingya departure to Bangladesh since violence broke out in late August made him happy. The Burmese military committed in what it called “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages and said it focused 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 utilized to classify 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 cover-up 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 — complicated the results of an internal investigation that dismissed the military of any persecution of the Rohingya and utilized the term “Bengali terrorist” 41 times.

An allegation that some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blessed it on Burmese security forces is also common. Zaw Htay, an agent for Suu Kyi, used his Facebook page to share the claim, along with pictures since proven to have been alloyed. 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 grasped this as well. The commander in chief [of the armed forces] is a captive to social media.”

Facebook’s reliance on customers 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 disorder. He flipped the screen of his Redmi Note 3, an inexpensive Indian-made cellphone, to display 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 images of dead Burmese soldiers are attached to another post. Lwin removed the first cartoon as “too political” and the second as obvious fake news.

Lwin said he could commonly tell the difference between real and fake news. But for most, that type of discernment appears only with experience, and Burma is just entering the digital era.

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