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The Social Network of Ethnic Conflict

The Social Network of Ethnic Conflict

Social media is a place where you will find anything ranging from a passively nihilistic moth meme– to rallying people into committing violence. The latter is slightly more concerning. How does one go about drawing a line here? Surely, social media platforms extend a certain responsibility when it comes to controlling hostile and potentially life threatening content…right? Let’s take a closer look at how the use of Facebook can be a dangerous prospect in some countries.

The Coveted Torch of Information

In a typically democratic and well-developed country- the responsibility of filtering and distributing information is bestowed onto the industry of traditional journalism. Clearly, such a responsibility is no joke and there are conventional standards set to uphold the integrity of this industry. The journalist is, for instance, required to be objective and unbiased. In this regard the press is referred to as the 4th estate, and its freedom is essential to maintain democracy. The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) substantiates this through statistical research and have found that a freer press is an integral part of freedom.

Such a status quo has encountered a post-millennial, generation Z problem. The press has been using long-established, traditional media platforms such as TV broadcasts, radio and newspapers. However, the world is changing. Social media platforms have been – either knowingly or unwittingly – competing with these traditional media platforms over the coveted torch of information. The former makes the audience its nucleus, whereas the latter puts the audience in a passive position- Nobody likes being told what’s what!

Information Rivers and Floods

An exponential rise of social media platforms has accelerated the flow of information in the world.  A vast amount of information is available to us at our utmost convenience. The catch here is that its independence means that there are no conventional standards of filtering this information. Consequently, the combination of an information overload and convenience can be disastrous. This is mainly because the traditional media has been heavily undermined by the so-called fake news epidemic. The gimmick here is that people don’t like being told what’s what on the one hand – but ironically on the other hand resort to dubious sources of information that confirm their pre-existing biases. This can be observed in the watershed cases of the presidential elections in the US, and Brexit.

If the impact of misinformation via social media on countries with an established political structure and a 4th estate is this high, then what about misinformation in countries without such a system? In the cases of Myanmar and South Sudan, misinformation and hate speech spread across Facebook have contributed to ethnic conflict.

Dark Side of the Coin

I remember being immensely fascinated and inspired by my friend who participated in the Egyptian Revolution. People – in absolute solidarity – rose up against a despot in a revolution that inspired its neighbors to muster the courage and follow suit. The role of Facebook for Egyptians evolved from a place to vent into a platform to organize protests and rallies. However, Facebook was a mere tool used by Egyptians in a cause that was already echoed in the country. In the words of Professor Henry Jenkins, “We do not live on platforms, we live across platforms. We choose the right tools for the right job.” The dark side of the coin here is that false information circulating around Facebook can be misinterpreted as truth.

In Myanmar, for instance, Facebook is often seen as ‘the internet’. This is unsurprising when you realize that half a decade ago, Myanmar was one of the least connected countries in the world. In 2012, only 1.1% of its population had access to the internet. However, in 2013, the price of mobile SIM cards dropped from over $200 to $2 due to the deregulation of telecommunications. This led to a majority of the population to purchase SIM cards with internet access. Around this time, Facebook went viral and soon was considered a status symbol.  In essence, people resorted to this social media platform for daily information.

The flipside is manifested in Buddhist extremists that circulate hate speech against Rohingya muslims.  In 2014, a Muslim man was rumoured to have raped a Buddhist woman, and this information spread like wildfire on Facebook. Upon reading this on extremist Buddhist monk- Ashin Wirathu’s public page, people did not question the legitimacy of the information by searching for evidence. Instead,  it resulted in a riot of people that ultimately ended with two people dying.

Facebook and ‘the Enemy’

Myanmar has, in recent times, been scrutinized by the international community over cases of multiple human rights violations against the Rohingyas. According to Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), casualties are a shattering 10,000 deaths. Facebook is used as a tool by influential individuals to paint a picture of ¨an enemy¨ according to their arbitrary bidding. They have no journalistic responsibility to relay an unbiased truth. Instead, misinformation is used for the pursuit of power by the manipulation of a vulnerable people. I know, sometimes, the truth hurts.

Feeling unnerved yet? Well, it gets darker. It seems political vulnerability and Facebook’s openness have more in common than you thought, as a similar dynamic can be seen in other countries. South Sudan’s on and off civil war has left its 4th estate in shambles. Information isn’t relayed through the metric of objectivity, but as a tool to rally for the war effort. Berlin based researcher Stephen Kovats notes, “Linkages between social media, and word of mouth, and ending up with a gun in the hand or a machete, those are fairly clear.”

The logic is painfully straightforward. Unity is good for the cause and anger is a powerful fuel that unites. Someone finds a gruesome image of people killed in an unrelated war. Regardless of its truth, it is spread around Facebook with the claim that the enemy had a hand in it. The resulting anger creates a larger divide between the two factions and in the case of South Sudan, takes a racial context. In 2016, a UN report concluded that “social media has been used by partisans on all sides, including some senior government officials, to exaggerate incidents, spread falsehoods and veiled threats, or post outright messages of incitement.”

Accountability to the people

So how did this come to be? Surely Facebook must have a protocol to deal with hate speech and life threatening misinformation. The truth is that it heavily relies on users reporting the hate speech for it to be flagged and ultimately removed. However, there exists a massive problem in translation. The main languages of both South Sudan and Myanmar are in a different text and Facebook is severely understaffed in both countries to have the resources to deal with these intricacies.

In the case of South Sudan, Facebook is not equipped to recognize certain offensive discourses and there are several terms used commonly in South Sudan that go under the radar. For instance, the term ‘kokoro’ is a derogatory term used to describe people that eat too much. However, in a social context it is used to refer to the Dinka tribe in an offensive manner. Similarly, the term ‘ber’ is used to address people who do not associate with either tribes and must, therefore, be killed. In Myanmar, discourses such as ¨if its kalar, get rid of the whole race¨, and ¨just feed them to the pigs¨ are circulated on Facebook.

The truth hurts because Facebook has it all backwards. While Mark Zuckerberg has officially acknowledged these concerns, attempts to rectify this are frankly not enough because countries like Myanmar and South Sudan are nowhere near Facebook’s list of priorities.

What now?

So in a nutshell, Facebook’s prioritization of incessant expansion abroad has left the social media platform vulnerable to being a breeding ground for violence. In an attempt to expand their business, they managed to become ever-present in countries where its omnipotence has, albeit as a bi-product, resulted in a monopoly of information. This monopoly is unfortunately used for misinformation.  

What can be done to change this? The main focus should be raising awareness to people in these countries about misinformation. I believe that this is a calling for the industry of journalism to evolve from the use of not only mass media, but also to be equally active and prevalent in social media. If people are -from a position of convenience i.e. social media-made aware of legitimate sources of information, it could save lives. 

Related articles:

Ashin Wirathu: One Man Triggering Ethnic Conflict

Lessons Learned from Chapel Hill


Photo Credits

Ayeyarwady Bagan, Yoshitaka Ando  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Facebook Translations, Marco Bardus (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Information, Rosalyn Davis (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Myanmar: Urgent Humanitarin Needs in Rakhine State, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Myanmar’s Rakhine State: different realites of displaced, confined and resettled communities, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

South Sudan, Steve Evans (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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