Myanmar: Genocide and Activism in the Age of Social Media

Vacation tip: genocide is not the perfect backdrop for your selfie.  As you may have heard, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is currently facing a social media backlash over his recent series of posts on Twitter about his beautiful vacation in Myanmar. Myanmar (or Burma, as you can call it if you’d like a lecture on outdated names and colonialism) used to be that country from an episode of Seinfeld for most Americans. Now, many of us know it as the country that has been in the midst of a widespread ethnic cleansing, if not outright genocide, against the Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist majority country.  The fact that the biggest news about Myanmar is currently focused on Tweets and responses over Twitter and Facebook only highlights the ways in which social media is either reshaping or perhaps just magnifying the ways in which we as westerners, and Americans in particular, approach far-away crises.

In many ways, the Rohingya’s plight in Myanmar is a crisis that’s tailor-made for the age of social media.  It has a mix of details that, from the perspective of an American audience, are familiar (Muslims, military dictatorship, ethnic cleansing) and unique (Buddhists as perpetrators of violence instead of the peace-loving stereotype; Muslims as the victims of religious violence; the fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner now leading a regime in which the military that imprisoned her for years is carrying out genocide, ostensibly under her leadership) enough to grab our attention.  There are a number of angles to the story that allow it to reemerge in various news cycles. For example, every time President Suu Kyi has one of the many honors previously bestowed upon her in the West revoked, a new story is generated.  Today, two journalists imprisoned for their coverage of the genocide were among Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year, again highlighting a different facet of the crisis and tying it into a separate narrative of journalism under threat (which resonates strongly in the era of Saudi assassinations and Donald Trump).

The images coming out of Myanmar are compelling while also satisfying our strange fascination with disaster porn (which I assume is the most popular variety of porn on the internet); will the Burmese Muslims being persecuted know it’s Christmas? And even the names of the country and of the ethnic group being targeted are short (three syllables each, seven and eight letters, respectively) and distinctive enough to be learned, remembered and repeated; in other words, #Myanmar and #Rohingya are quite hashtagable.

Yet, as has often been the case with so-called hashtag activism, all these faces of the story allow us to talk around the story without necessarily talking about the story, much less doing something tangible about the crisis itself.  Myanmar and the Rohingya become interesting pieces of knowledge to trot out for conversation at the office holiday party or Christmas dinner.  We can feel knowledgeable and accomplished from sharing a hashtag and morally righteous for condemning killing and raping people based on their religion as wrong (gold stars everyone). And then, like #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls, we can read a story or two before clicking over to our next tab to find out how Cardi B’s marriage is going today.  

But I’ve ventured into “back in my day/get off my lawn” territory. Awareness campaigns do raise knowledge of issues, which filters into donations and political pressure that can have real results (when I was growing up, #FreeMandela might as well have been a hashtag).  Joseph Kony has been boxed in (but not captured) and half of the Chibok girls have been brought back, outcomes that were at least somewhat influenced by the extra resources brought as a result of international attention and widespread outrage.  So, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, we should perhaps rejoice that the truth about Myanmar is being spread to the world, whether through pretense (or pretentiousness) or sincerity.

The Myanmar crisis also, however, further highlights the emerging dark side of social media.  In some ways this development was natural. When the Arab Spring emerged across the greater Middle East nearly eight years ago, participants and observers noted the power of social media to organize protesters and the attempts by authoritarian governments to control or shut down these online platforms.  Yet, more recent events such as Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, accomplished in part through the spread of “fake news” to vast numbers of people through Facebook, showed that social media is a morally neutral tool that could be employed for noble or nefarious means.

Media and propaganda have been used to promote genocides and crimes against humanity for a long time; from ancient rumors and slanders against Jews and Christians to Nazi propaganda to Genocidaire radio broadcasts in Rwanda comparing Tutsi to cockroaches, murderous and authoritarian regimes have used the available media to spread their ideologies and facilitate political mass violence.  This sinister side of social media has become evident in the Myanmar case, where the proliferation of cell phones and Facebook accounts have facilitated the spread among the majority population of violent Buddhist nationalism and anti-Rohingya rhetoric, leading much of the local population to support the army’s violence against the Muslim minority while denying that these actions constitute genocide.

Perhaps at the end of the day, social media has not transformed either crimes against humanity or the reactions and oppositions to these events as much as its simply magnified and simplified the processes by which these things occur.  Whether or not the increased scale and speed by which the masses become aware of, and perhaps involved in, these crises will translate into different outcomes depends more on human nature than the nature of technology.  In other words, now that everyone can gain information about crises like the Myanmar genocide in close to real time, will we collectively use this knowledge to fight for change, or will we be satisfied that we know more than ever about the crises that we are ignoring?

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