Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Before I get to the Facebook angle of this post, please indulge me as I note what I believe are two widely held beliefs that we'd be better off dropping. Blame it on a recent The New York Times piece on Buddhist Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The first is that Buddhists are all about peace and compassion. This idea persists in some circles, thanks to how Mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation practices are sold in the West. Well, get over it.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist religious leader Tenzin Gyatso, better known by his title, the Dalai Lama, is a rare exception. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks are some of the fiercest instigators of nasty anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Two, we tend to believe that all Nobel Peace Prize winners are saintly advocates for equal justice for all. Well, what about Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the esteemed prize in 1991 while under house arrest for her peaceful opposition to her nation’s dictatorial military government?

These days, as her nation’s prime minister-equivalent, she defends the way the Rohingyas have been treated by her Buddhist brethren. She argues that the Rohingya are simply Muslim Bangladeshis who, in essence, are illegal squatters in Buddhist Myanmar.

So what do you know? Buddhists and Nobel Prize winners can be just as broken as the rest of us.

Now for that New York Times piece out of Myanmar written by the paper’s new Southeast Asia correspondent, Hannah Beech. She’s new to the Times, but certainly not to the region or elite journalism.

What struck me most about her excellent piece, however, were not the naive beliefs cited above. Rather, it was what she reported about the role that Facebook and other social media have played in the conflict. (Facebook and other social media are also the subject of Congressional hearings this week because of how the Russians used them in an attempt to, at the very least, confuse voters in the United States' 2016 president election.)

Smartphones are now near ubiquitous in Myanmar and other forms of media are seriously lacking or inadequate. That's allowed the Myanmar government to freely use real fake news (What an odd phrase!) to control the information it's citizens get about the Rohingya and the conflict.

I regard this as another frightening example of the degree to which social media has debased global journalism, particularly in nations where fact-based journalism has never been strong. We must pay more attention to how easy it's become to mislead people in our internet age, and how some of the world’s most ruthless governments -- Russia’s the prime example -- increasingly control via social media what citizens in their own and other nations think is actual news.

Here’s a pertinent chunk of Beech’s story that shed’s light on the involvement of Myanmar’s Buddhist monks in the conflict and how social media is used there to control the public narrative.

Buddhist monks, moral arbiters in a pious land, have been at the forefront of a campaign to dehumanize the Rohingya. In popular videos, extremist monks refer to the Rohingya as “snakes” or “worse than dogs.”
Outside Mr. Thu Min Gala’s monastery in Sittwe, a pair of signs reflected an alternate sense of reality. One said that the monastery, which is sheltering ethnic [Rohingya] who fled the conflict zone, would not accept any donations from international agencies. The other warned that multifaith groups were not welcome.
The abbot claimed that the authorities in Rakhine [the Myanmar state in which most have Rohingya lived] had stopped a car owned by the International Committee of the Red Cross that was filled with weaponry destined for Rohingya militants who carried out attacks against the security forces in August. Mr. Thu Min Gala claimed that sticks of dynamite had been wrapped in paper with the Red Cross logo. The Red Cross denied these accusations.
“We don’t trust the international society,” the abbot said. “They are only on the side of the terrorists.”
At another monastery in Sittwe, an elderly abbot, U Baddanta Thaw Ma, halted my conversation with a young monk by slapping the air in front of my face. “Go! Go! Go!” he yelled in English, before switching to the local Rakhine dialect. “Go away, you foreigner! Go away, you kalar [a local pejorative term for the Rohingya ]  lover.”

OK, now comes the part about social media manipulation.

Social media messaging has driven much of the rage in Myanmar. Though widespread access to cellphones only started a few years ago, mobile penetration is now about 90 percent. For many people, Facebook is their only source of news, and they have little experience in sifting fake news from credible reporting.
One widely shared message on Facebook, from a spokesman for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, emphasized that biscuits from the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, had been found at a Rohingya militant training camp. The United Nations called the post “irresponsible.”
The Myanmar government, however, insists the public needs to be guided.
“We do something that we call educating the people,” said U Pe Myint, the nation’s information minister. He acknowledged, “It looks rather like indoctrination, like in an authoritarian or totalitarian state.”
In Yangon, Mr. Pe Myint this month gathered local journalists to discuss what he called “fabricated news” by foreign reporters and a “political war” in which international aid groups favored the Rohingya.

Myanmar is not the only nation in which Buddhist-Muslim conflicts exist. This story from Moment magazine details growing tensions in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority.

Nor, of course, is blatant and heavy-handed media manipulation confined to Myanmar. This opinion column, also published in the Times, underscores the extreme to which Filipino strongman President Rodrigo Duterte’s government uses the web to control what the civilian population is exposed to.

We've been hearing about how important Facebook and other social media sites have become in news dissemination for some time now, not to mention how much larger a role they're poised to play in the near future.

So is this Myanmar story what we have in store for us in an increasingly hi-tech news environment? Hope not, and, to be fair, perhaps Facebook and other social media, which face  mounting public and government pressures to do something, will find a way to minimize real fake news on their sites.

Let's hope so. Meanwhile, here's another Times article that appeared last weekend covering Facebook's attempt so far to deal with fake content. Deep into the story, after a lot of information about Russia, it singles out Myanmar as a particular problem.

I urge you to take the time to read Beech's entire piece. It's chilling on several levels. Here’s that link again.

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