Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Viral Violence

In this week's guest blog, Katie Gallogly-Swan investigates Viral Violence

After two years of social media scandals on the use and abuse of personal data and advertising, this week (27 November 2018) Mark Zuckerberg chose to skip an international ‘Grand Committee’ inquiry on the hot topic of fake news. Comically sharing a picture of his empty seat, the organisers of the committee underscored the impunity that such powerful corporate leaders can enjoy. However, more interestingly at work in Zuckerberg’s absence is the ambiguity of accountability posed by social media’s relationship with politics, revealing challenges for understanding how new media technology enables and participates in conflict, and particularly in generating ethnic violence.

The relationship between media technology and ethnic violence isn’t a revelation. There are countless examples of how news-makers create the environment for violence by capitalising on technological advancements to spread a message of primordial difference. For example, the rise of the printing press enabled the circulation of anti-Semitic publication Der Stürmer during World War II, whose publisher, Julius Streicher, was executed for his role in the Holocaust. More recently, Rwandan journalists were imprisoned in 2003 for incitement of ethnic violence in the 1994 genocide via broadcasts over Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. As a result, some explorations on media and war such as Johanna Neuman’s Lights, Camera, War have asserted that while the technology might be ever-changing, it continues to function in the same way and we as consumers adapt as we have in the past.

However in both of these instances, perpetrators were easily identified. This is not so simply the case with social media technology. Whether Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, users are implicated as both consumers and creators of media. Further, these technologies do not in themselves generate news, but act as networked tools to algorithmically distribute the posts created by users allowing alternative centres of gravity for news production to emerge. Mobilising the personal data Facebook mines from users, this algorithm manifests as ‘filter bubbles’, where users are only exposed to posts that the platform ‘thinks’ they will like or share (generating more traffic and therefore advertising revenue), which creates intensely uniform echo chambers where communities co-exist but never dialogue. When these echo chambers are mobilised around hateful messages that gain viral status, the exponential exposure and normalisation of hatred can have deadly consequences.

In the past year, Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its implication in the genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Using training in psychological warfare, the Myanmar military have spent the past five years developing an expansive social media campaign against the Rohingya minority by capitalising on filter bubbles. Spreading anti-Rohingya propaganda and dehumanising language across a range of seemingly non-political entertainment pages on the social media platform as well as targeted anti-Buddhist posts to Rohingya populations, this long term campaign has normalised and embedded divisions within Myanmar. This has culminated in the majority Buddhist Myanmar public either rejecting reports as false or even supporting the mass murder, rape, and village burning in North Rakhine and the subsequent displacement of around 700,000 Rohingya people into Bangladesh.

A Reuters investigation revealed that by having next to no moderators who spoke Burmese and not translating community procedures into local languages, Facebook simply didn’t know that hateful media was being distributed. Their circulation was further enabled by the ubiquitous use of Facebook in Myanmar, where competitors in a recently deregulated telecoms industry offer data-free usage of Facebook and many people see it as their sole source of internet and news.

Facebook have accepted some responsibility, voluntarily publishing a Human Rights Impact Assessment for Myanmar in line with UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which acknowledged that the platform created an ‘enabling environment’ for human rights abuse, and committed to hiring 100 Burmese speaking moderators. But these commitments only raise more questions on how to understand the complex web of globalising forces, social media technology, and the rise in ethnic violence Facebook has been linked to; simplistically, guilt is displaced to an arbitrary moderating tool, enshrining the platform as a neocolonial arbiter of truth and decency.

The focus on moderation as a safety valve relies on narratives of essential, primordial difference that must be managed. Meanwhile, there has been little consideration of how the rapid emergence and dominance of the platform has impacted on the peace of fragile states such as Myanmar, which only recently opened up to global markets and is in transition after years of military dictatorship. Focused completely on its growth, we could liken Facebook to other imperialist corporate ventures; doing business with little regard for unintended consequences until it’s too late.

Perhaps the most sinister but most crucial aspect to consider in Facebook’s connection to ethnic violence is the way it makes its money. The appearance of flattened access to the platform hides a model which monetises personal data: clients can buy advertisements that target specific demographics who are algorithmically selected. With global reach, Facebook has a monopoly on personal and social information that transcends borders, and this data can be bought and sold by powerful and hateful interests for political ends. So-called ‘psychographic’ techniques to manipulate behaviour have been shown to be at work in the most recent American election where Russian organisations pumped money into distributing media in support of Donald Trump, and these same methods were employed in Myanmar to enable and normalise genocide.

At this point we must ask: does a focus on increasing the moderation of hateful media actually illuminate our understanding of how Facebook became a tool of ethnic violence in Myanmar, or would it be more astute to consider the complicity of a profit model which benefits from selling personal data to generate viral engagement, whether hateful or not. If we accept that ethnicity is constructed, then to understand the roots of the violence in Myanmar we might just need to look beyond moderation and consider the role played by the rapid market entry of global capital forces such as Facebook.  

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