Facebook: A global threat to minority Muslim communities

Facebook: A global threat to minority Muslim communities
Comment: Facebook is being used by Buddhist and Hindu extremists in Asia to spread messages of religious hatred and violence, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
23 Mar, 2018
The UN described the violence against the Rohingyas as 'textbook ethnic cleansing' [Getty]
In a new wave of religious violence, Muslim minority populations throughout Asia are living in fear of being lynched, assaulted, raped or killed by adherents of religious faiths so often associated with peace and tolerance. 

In Myanmar, more than 10,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed and another 600,000 displaced since Myanmar security forces and Buddhist extremist groups began carrying out what the UN described as "textbook ethnic cleansing" in August 2017.

In Sri Lanka, the government was forced to impose a state of emergency after Buddhist mobs began carrying out a wave of violence against Muslims all across the country, while India is experiencing levels of Hindu extremist violence against Muslims not seen in decades. 

Clearly there's nothing about the respective faiths - Buddhism and Hinduism - that should make their followers encourage hatred or violence towards followers of Islam, so there must be something else going on, and that something else appears - at least in part - to be Facebook.

In short, Facebook has now become an existential threat to Muslim minorities around the world.

"Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended," said Yanghee Lee, a United Nations United Nations investigator who described the social media platform as a vehicle for inciting "acrimony, dissension and conflict", and blamed it for driving the Rohingya Muslim genocide in Myanmar.

Facebook posts that are meant to mischievously and intentionally victimise minorities gain great traction in places with low literacy rates

"Everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar," she told reporters. "It was used to convey public messages but we know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebook [accounts] and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities," she said.

In the months and years leading up to the government crackdown on the Rohingya, Facebook accounts in Myanmar were awash with fake news stories about Muslims plotting to carve out an Islamic emirate, impose Sharia law, or attack Buddhist temples. Some even used doctored photos to claim Rohingya Muslims had already carried out such acts, all of which instilled a nationwide fear that Myanmar was facing an existential threat from an external enemy or foreign other.

"Facebook has been bad for Myanmar," a Rakhine village leader told The New York Times recently, explaining how social media has been manipulated by political entrepreneurs who seek to benefit by pushing anti-Rohingya Muslim propaganda. "Young people are using their smartphones a lot. They don't see with their eyes; they just see with their phones."

Similarly, the Sri Lankan government accused Facebook of failing to control rampant anti-Muslim propaganda, blaming the social media network for the anti-Muslim riots that took place in multiple cities earlier this month, which left four Muslims dead, dozens of mosques and Muslim owned businesses destroyed, ultimately forcing the government to impose a state of emergency in an effort to quell the violence.

Harin Fernando, the island nation's telecommunications minister, said the government was forced into taking this "unprecedented" step of shutting down social media networks for 72 hours in response to fears that anti-Muslim Facebook posts, including fake videos claiming to be Muslims torching Buddhist temples, would ignite further violence against Sri Lanka's two million Muslims.

"This whole country could have been burning in hours," Fernando told  the Guardian. "Hate speech is not being controlled by these organisations and it has become a critical issue globally."

To emphasise his point, telecommunications minister referenced a Facebook post that read, "Kill all Muslims, don't even let an infant of the dogs escape." 

In India, too, the spreading of fake news via Facebook has been a major contributor to the alarming rise in the number of acts of violence carried out by Hindus against Muslims. In fact, communal violence rose for the first time in several years in 2015, and has climbed since, and much of this violence traces back to inflammatory or erroneous posts on Facebook.

You have all the ingredients for a Facebook driven genocide

Last year, for instance, members of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were arrested on charges of "spreading fake news and creating communal disharmony", which helped ignite and inflame riots in the West Bengal part of the country.

In fact, one BJP member encouraged Hindus to do to Muslims what they did in the 2002 Gujarat riots, when 790 Muslims were killed after Hindu extremists falsely accused Muslims of starting a fire on a passenger train that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims.

"Today, Hindus are not safe in the West Bengal state. Hindus in Bengal should respond to people involved in communal violence as Hindus in Gujarat did. Otherwise, soon Bengal will turn into Bangladesh," tweeted BJP Legislative Assembly Member, Raja Singh.

This is a serious, and insufficiently recognised problem, especially in developing countries. Facebook posts that are meant to mischievously and intentionally victimise minorities gain great traction in places with low literacy rates, and even lower rates of media literacy.

Much of this violence traces back to inflammatory or erroneous posts on Facebook

Sri Lanka however, has a high literacy rate but poor media literacy levels, which means, according to Sanjana Hattotuwa, an analyst with the Center for Policy Alternatives in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, "The population can read and write but tends to immediately believe and uncritically respond to that which they see on social media." 

When you couple that dynamic with countries that have a history of competing racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, then you have all the ingredients for a Facebook driven genocide, just like the one taking place in Myanmar today.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.