The efficient deployment of propaganda is a central tenet in the playbook used to concentrate power. Myanmar is no stranger to that playbook, and its military junta has a new player in a one-sided game of racial tyranny.
The military regime uses Facebook to incite hatred, initiate censorship of Facebook users, and deny an ethnic cleansing that resulted in nearly a million Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is beholden to a crisis of truth where the flow of information is rigged against civil discourse and human solidarity. Viewing the crisis through George Orwell’s allegory on power and propaganda as portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four helps illuminate political motivation. Metaphors like Big Brother, Party mantra, and telescreens foreshadow a dark world where social media pays homage to absolute authority.
Orwell himself was an accomplice to the professional oppression of ethnic tribes in Burma under British imperialism. His experience with racial tyranny as a colonial police officer would later help him fictionalize absolute power and all its faculties.
Emma Larkin notes in Finding George Orwell in Burma that intellectuals in teahouses from Yangon to Mandalay consider Orwell a prophet. His writings are timeless, and the literary classic Nineteen Eighty-Four is still useful in explaining nuances of today’s leaders and their use of propaganda. Exhibit A: Big Brother (the Myanmar regime) concentrates power by using the Party (Facebook) to manipulate public discourse.
Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook) have become a primary source for sharing information among millions of people across the developing world. A recent survey by Myanmar Online Advertising found that smartphones account for 85 percent of the devices used to access the internet and that Facebook is the number one internet browser on those devices.
Smartphones and Facebook have become an integral part of life in Myanmar. Rohingya Muslims narrowly escaping death often captured images of atrocities committed by Myanmar soldiers on smartphones. I have personally received multiple images via Facebook Messenger from refugees and aid workers during trips to the refugee camps in Bangladesh; most too gruesome to post. They illustrate a fantastic horror raining down in the form of bullets and machetes. Alas, Big Brother will deny brutality and the Party will publish a revisionist history.
Rohingya advocates are now posting written accounts of alleged war crimes perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers. Many include personal reflections and angry statements condemning the military. Anecdotal evidence, however, shows a concerted effort to censor personal posts about crimes perpetrated on the Rohingya. Facebook independently censors these pages or complaints by other users have forced censorship.
Activists argue that the Myanmar regime and its proxies log systematic complaints into Facebook’s reporting framework. The Daily Beast has reported that Rohingya poets living in Burma, bloggers in Malaysia, and expats in Europe are all having posts deleted and pages removed because they do not meet Facebook’s “community standards” – no matter how subtle or critical their posts. Big Brother has domain over the flow of information and will suppress any discourse that challenges the state.
Meanwhile, it is easy to visit the Facebook pages of the Myanmar President’s Office, the Myanmar Military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and dozens of other state and non-state entities that represent tens of millions of followers. The Myanmar regime posts across multiple pages with a frequency that rivals U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s Twitter account.
The vitriol against Rohingya Muslims, along with a simultaneous denial of ethnic cleansing, has gone viral on these pages. They claim Rohingya are illegal aliens of a lessor race and blame deaths in the region on the Rohingya themselves. Recent statements from representatives of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar claim Facebook has “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public.” The Party machine will continually redefine the enemy in service to Big Brother’s absolute power.
Facebook has given an oblique response to the U.N.’s charge, saying they take the implication seriously and will review any claims regarding hateful posts on their platform. There is limited transparency about what criteria is used to render Facebook’s newsfeed, and management has yet to initiate any fundamental change that might curtail racist speech and misinformation.
Facebook’s Vice President of Product Management recently told a Slate podcast that the company is trying to move beyond algorithms that simply reinforce bias. That runs counter with what former executives describe as a mission to ensnare as much user attention as possible.
If Facebook challenges users bias, then they may lose users to other media outlets. The current business model reinforces biases and influences prejudice at the expense of civil discourse. The Party delivers propaganda for Big Brother, but the Inner Party will be the ones to decide how propaganda is delivered.
Facebook is in a unique position of influence as the largest social media network in the world. Recent accusations claim it adds to the general malaise of political systems, and now risks becoming an accomplice to tyranny. Myanmar is the most egregious example of how social media is making human solidarity more vulnerable to racial prejudice.
It seems Facebook is unwilling – maybe incapable – of limiting hate speech, restraining capricious censorship, and curbing false information. Recruitment of Facebook by authoritarian regimes is becoming more pervasive. Popular uprisings during the Arab Spring used the platform to mobilize the masses, but autocrats from Turkey to the Philippines are now using it to suppress speech and spread false news. Big Brother is watching, and the Ministry of Truth will always operate under the Party slogan: Ignorance is Strength.
As Orwell writes in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “power seeks power for power’s sake. It is not interested in the good of others; it is interested solely in power”. The need to preserve absolute power might be evil, but the temptation to flatter prejudice is a more dangerous affair of legitimizing absolute authority.
Autocratic regimes manipulate racial sensibilities and subvert public discourse to preserve power. This is the profile of Myanmar’s regime. It censors free thought, constantly redefines a domestic enemy, and uses Facebook is an Orwellian accessory to racial tyranny. Facebook reinforces bias at the expense of civil discourse, and it is time to reevaluate the paradigm before humanity becomes a slave to the subversion of truth and manipulation of the mind.