Above: Frequency of posts in a Myanmar nationalist Facebook group through 2017
Above: Myanmar nationalist Facebook posts per hour in 2017
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the realisation of the influence it had on the outcomes of the USA Presidential Elections and Brexit, more and more stories regarding the usage of data gathering and analysing, and Social Media to influence public opinion are emerging.
In our everyday lives perhaps we don’t realise how much of what we see in our Social Media feeds is influenced and conditioned by a series of algorithms, analyses and studies of what websites we visit or what kind of links we click on the most. This is best exemplified by the use that most websites make of cookies (remember that pop-up window that appears every time you open a website informing you of their cookie policies? Yes, that). “An HTTP cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing. Cookies were designed to […] to remember stateful information […] or to record the user’s browsing activity […]”. Depending on their level of encryption cookies can be more or less safe from hackers. One of the things cookies do is influence what kind of ads appear on your Social Media feeds; if you’ve recently shopped online from a particular brand or booked a flight or train, chances are you are going to get ads from the brand you shopped from and ads for flights and travel offers. Try imagining the effect this has on a broader scale and what can happen when hate speech and discrimination are involved.
Various articles have recently been highlighting the worrying connection between Social Media and diffusing hate speech in areas where ethnic, political, religious or social tensions are already on edge or where genocidal campaigns are effectively in place. A CNN report by Euan McKirdy, Angus Watson and Bex Wright points out this problem in the context of Myanmar, where Facebook and Messenger are actively being used (by real users, bots, and trolls) to spread hate speech, false news, ultranationalist posts, which are causing widespread fear and acts of violence against the Rohingya population. The more people that share hate speech posts, click on ultranationalist websites of sends messages inciting violence, the more pervasive these phenomena will be in Facebook and other Social Media feeds. These concerns have been met with scarce commitment by Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook industry, although they affirm they are working on finessing mechanisms to detect hate speech within the systems, and continue to be a huge problem in places like Myanmar, where anti-Muslimism and anti-Rohingya posts, images, videos and messages are reaching peaks of 500 posts per hour for the duration of a month (after the ARSA attack in August 2017 they spiked up to over 60,000 daily interactions only in the month of September).
It is clear then, that Social Media has a very influential role in aiding aspects of genocidal campaigns; we should therefore be cautious of how we use such tools and reflect on the impact that what we share, like, or comment can have. Nevertheless, focusing on what good Social Media can do is important, as it allows people everywhere to share images, videos and news in real time, and at times defy oppressive governmental attempts on limiting circulation of information. Many times Twitter and Facebook have been used as tools to signal emergency situations (one example is the use that is being made of Twitter to stop deportations of people in the UK). What we can do is then try to counter hate and violence with informed and educational posting, constructive engagements with friend and other networks, and sharing relevant, multilateral, multi-sourced pieces of information.
This blog post was written by Renée Bertini, STAND UK’s Digital Media Coordinator who studies International Relations & World Philosophies at SOAS University of London.