Earlier this year international media reported that there had been a huge spike in hate speech on Facebook at the start of the Rohingya crisis. The world had watched in horror over the previous nine months as reports of atrocities against the marginalised Rohingya community in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State were documented by different media and human rights agencies. Facebook had been utilised to a huge degree to fuel and spread anti-Rohingya sentiment, with users sharing incendiary content by anti-Islamic Buddhist nationalists. Content which was previously physically disseminated, a slow and laborious process, could now be shared instantly at the click of a mouse.
While Facebook is hugely culpable for this, and is rightly being held accountable, the platform alone isn’t to blame.
For decades Myanmar’s broken, under-funded and restrictive education system has been deliberately used as a tool by the military government to control the population of the country. Under tight sensorship, the education system focussed on rote-learning, encouraging students not to question and investigate, but to memorise and accept. This combination of new technology with no limitations on content, and a population that has been pressured to accept what it is told, created the perfect storm.
The impact of Prospect Burma’s work, and of a quality education, is undeniable. However, with the news full of atrocities, we have seen a decrease in funding from individual supporters at a time when Myanmar needs it more than ever.
Thant Sin Oo studied for a Master’s degree in Media in Development at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies with support from Prospect Burma, and his thesis focussed on the use of hate speech online in Myanmar. Prior to his Master’s, Thant Sin Oo spent time as a support worker in some of the country’s remote regions.
He told us: “Two years of spending time in the remote communities in Myanmar allowed me to see how knowledge and information were accessed by the people and how it shaped community development. I also noticed that as the new digital technologies advanced they quickly spread, even to underdeveloped regions of Myanmar, and became adapted by people to use for various needs. These mobile technologies intertwine, replace, reshape, and get adapted to the existing social practices within these societies, for both good and bad.”
Mobile technology was introduced into the country over an very short time, and the consequences of this are only just starting to be felt. The explosion of online technologies within Myanmar has had an enormous impact throughout the country, not least for people living in remote and rural areas, and many of the effects of this are positive. But it has also presented a new challenge: a populace that has not been taught to question what they read in an age of unlimited reporting and information.
Thant Sin Oo’s studies led him inevitably to Facebook, of which Myanmar has become an enormous consumer. As the Guardian reported, of the 53 million inhabitants of the country, around 14 million are users, and it is considered the foremost news source by many. In fact, it is used as much as a news source and information-sharing hub as a social platform. A population which has been taught to simply believe, and repeat what it is taught, is the perfect audience for unverified hate speech on Facebook. Only in the aftermath of criticism by United Nations investigators has the organisation begun to take action, closing a number of accounts down.
When he was studying in 2016, Thant Sin Oo chose to focus his Master’s dissertation on online hate speech, even before it had been recognised by international media as an issue within Myanmar, as the beginnings of this were starting to emerge. He told us “I chose this topic in hopes of achieving useful findings to guide the counter-messaging projects in the country to promote tolerance and peace.”
Today, Thant Sin Oo is back in Myanmar and working for “Tech 4 Peace” that helps civil society organisations use technology to promote positive online culture.
Without meaningful education, with an emphasis on critical thinking and the encouragement of independent thought and a questioning approach to reading, it is easy to see how “fake news” could become so prolific in the country. This is why investing in education, and the work of Prospect Burma, is more important than ever.