Myanmar's efforts to combat fake news and hate speech on Facebook are off the mark. They fail to consider the growing digital literacy of Facebook users.
As Myanmar’s 2020 general elections approach, the prominence of fake news and hate speech on Facebook and the regulation of the use of that extremely popular social media platform for campaigning have become topics of frequent discussion in the country. But it is a mistake to underestimate Myanmar’s Facebook users, even if many of them have proven to be prone to anti-Rohingya hate speech and to the dissemination of fake news in the past several years.
Well-meaning but alarmist accounts suggest ways in which Facebooking could affect the coming elections, and more such accounts will doubtless appear when journalists flock to Myanmar to report on those polls later this year.
Existing interventions to regulate, control, and restrict the use of Facebook to spread hate speech and fake news — whether in coordinated fashion or by individuals acting alone — are mostly about vigilance. They target the ‘supply side’ — who produces fake news and hate speech and how to remove it. This approach neglects the ‘demand side’ of Facebooking — how users perceive fake news and hate speech and how they live with it.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has operated a Social Media Monitoring Team since 2018. But the team’s actual impact is unknown and difficult to assess. Facebook has a Myanmar team, and the firm reportedly works closely with civil society and non-governmental organizations in Myanmar for purposes of vigilance. It has also recently formed a monitoring team focused on the 2020 elections. In December 2019, representatives of Facebook met with Myanmar’s Union Election Commission. The discussion reportedly concerned ways in which the company could assist in removing hate speech and fake news before and during elections. In addition, Facebook works with organizations such as the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation and the telco Ooredoo to promote digital literacy in the country — an approach that could be said to address the demand side of Facebooking.
Myanmar Facebook users should not be thought of as lacking agency of their own.
Since mid-2019, Facebook has also funded the Bangkok-based creative agency, Love Agency, and the Myanmar art collective, Pyinsa Rasa, to promote change in online behaviour. This collaborative project, called ‘Sa Gar Ahla Ku Htone’ or ‘Therapy by Beautiful Words’, uses oral expression, music, and art in addition to workshops and discussions. This endeavour on Facebook’s part is apparently a response to the criticism and bad press that the social media giant has received in the past few years for its negligence concerning and lax control of anti-Rohingya hate speech on its platform. Again, however, in aiming to reduce hate speech and bullying by transforming haters and bullies into kind, empathetic, and respectful Facebook users, the project is concerned with the supply side of online hate speech.
Missing among all these well-meaning and — given the reduction in hate speech and fake traffic in Myanmar-language accounts and posts — clearly rather effective interventions is consideration of how Facebook users in Myanmar ‘live’ with fake news and hate speech. Three aspects of this sociology of user-oriented Facebooking — fatigue, resilience, and pushback — are particularly important.
First, having found themselves constantly exposed to hate speech and fake news in the past several years, many Myanmar Facebook users suffer from fatigue and just ignore such content. Second, acknowledging that Facebook or any governmental or non-governmental body or initiative can never entirely remove everything that is hateful and fake, users say that they have become somewhat resilient.
Third, Facebook users themselves often scrutinize and push back against hate speech and fake news, simply asserting that that they don’t accept it. Such push-back is common among politically partisan users supportive of the ruling National League for Democracy, and it may have resulted from better digital literacy among users — whether or not engendered by projects that seek to promote that literacy.
Hence, while largely supply-focused initiatives on the part of Facebook and other organizations and bodies to combat fake news and hate speech on-line are laudable, Myanmar Facebook users should not be thought of as lacking agency of their own. After all, they are the ones who have become somewhat addicted to Facebooking, and thus the ones who must learn how to live with the content that they encounter on the platform.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw was previously Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.