Online hate speech has become commonplace in Myanmar. PEN Myanmar (2015) analysed posts from Facebook over a year, noting that the incidence of hate speech pertaining to a topic was often tied to a controversial, topical event– the appearance of posts regarding politics, for instance, increased during the elections held in November 2015.
LIRNEasia and MIDO, along with Kantar TNS Myanmar, were on the field carrying out qualitative research in Myanmar in late August 2017 when conflict in the Rakhine region escalated. Many accounts revolved around the prevailing conflict came up in the interviews with 95 respondents in Yangon, Mandalay and Myitkyina.
A few respondents openly expressed their displeasure regarding the situation, and spoke of how the posts they encountered online pushed them to want to incite violence.
“I feel annoyed to see our religion and people being harassed. If it is possible, I want to kill them because we know that our Rakhine women were raped… I use Facebook and I saw the posts about Rakhine women and Myanmar women falling in love with Muslims. When we saw such kind of posts, we curse them with text in group. I curse the Myanmar women who love Muslims. When we saw the picture of Muslims with Myanmar women, me and friends of mine cursed them in comment box using our phones. I hate them…”
Male, 21, SEC C, Goldsmith, Rakhine/Buddhist, Yangon
This was, however, was not seen uniformly across the board among respondents. Some, for instance, used the platform in a more positive light, only posting content that would help the others in need.
” I didn’t share the posts that will cause fights and cause [people’s] blood to boil. I, instead, shared the posts which asked for help the people caught in the crisis and who needed food. I shared these posts and asked for donations.”
Male, 21, SEC C, Student, Rakhine/Buddhist, Yangon
Many respondents however seemed to be cautious, exercising self- regulation about what they posted/shared online. Friends and families tended to warn each other not to engage in discourse that could be deemed controversial.
“My sisters use Facebook and post selfies. I don’t check their account but I have to warned them about what not to do– I told them not to share posts about the Rakhine issue thinking that they would share it with annoyance. Because they are women there is even more potential [for them] to be abused in the comment box. I told them they can read news but [asked them not to] share or comment.”
Male, 34, SEC D, Driver, Muslim, Yangon
Another said that he did not engage in discourse using his real name and pictures because people hated the ethnic group he belonged to. The fear of getting a “haha’ reaction on Facebook, commonly seen as a sign of sarcastic laughter in Myanmar, was a deterrent for further discussion.
A workaround, however, was noted. Many respondents spoke about engaging in discourse by using secret accounts. These accounts are characterized by at least one of the following characteristics: the lack of personal photographs, and the absence of one’s real name.
“Without showing my identity, I can engage in preventing misconceptions, or state my opinions on local and international news without getting my name hurt… I can take the news without letting my identity be revealed. So, I use nicknames or other funny names with profile pictures like cartoon characters.”
Female, 38, SEC D, Bamar/Buddhist, Yangon
Noteworthy is that respondents viewed these accounts as a tool to engage in conversation and as a means of countering news that they deemed misconstrued, contrasting starkly to Facebook guidelines which discourage users “pretending to be anyone or anything”.