Social Media and Conflict: An Analysis of the Rohingya Crisis

28 May, 2013    ·   3949

Shanta-Maree Surendran analyses Facebook for a snapshot of current trends and perceptions of the issue

The Rohingya crisis continues and is spreading beyond Myanmar. Reports detail the flight of individuals and families, seeking asylum in neighbouring nations and further afar. Described as an ‘unwanted people’, no government leaders willing to lend them a voice, and nations unwilling to give them refuge, the Rohingya have been afforded representation via the Internet.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as individual blogs and groups such as Anonymous, open pathways for the promotion of awareness and encouragement of advocacy. This type of social media activity enables analysts to observe trends in opinion, perceptions, and key emerging themes relating to the issue. Observed patterns, while not indicative of a specific outcome or of a universal response, are useful in providing valuable insights.

What kind of presence does the issue occupy on Facebook? What are some of the key emerging themes?

Focusing on ‘Rohingyan Community’ Facebook Page
Facebook numbers overall indicate the Rohingya issue has an established and ongoing presence. Between January and April 2013, over 30 active Facebook pages have been identified as dedicated to the issue with almost 50,000 ‘likes’ between them. These numbers enable patterns of sentiment and tone to become apparent. This commentary focuses on presenting a snapshot based on postings to the most active Facebook page, ‘Rohingyan Community’. This page offers the largest sample size for the snapshot with over 16,000 ‘likes’ and daily activity of between 400-2000 participants ‘talking about’ the page during the week April 5 –April 12.

The collective aims of the Rohingyan community page are to promote awareness of the situation, as well as provide a forum for posting updates, links, images, videos, and comments about the situation. The primacy of this page is evident with other Rohingya-focused pages promoting their sites, activities, and events here to achieve greater awareness.

Sentiment: Religion Trumps Ethnicity
The patterns evident through postings and responses suggest the major focus of the page (and most other Rohingya pages) is the support of the Rohingyan people and outrage at the situation. Images and videos used to convey key events and issues receive the most comments and also exhibit the most inflammatory responses - this fervour is often carried on through dialogue. Sentiment ranges from pity to anger to comradeship to vengeance with the key focuses being religion and victimisation. The silence of leaders and suggestions of state sponsored terrorism also feature prominently.

Of note is the trend toward the centrality of religion to the issue. The ethnicity of the Rohingya is being usurped by the religious aspect and the perception of the violence as religious discrimination. This is demonstrated through trends in sharing, ‘liking’, and commenting. Posts which mention Rohingya without reference to religion generally receive less likes and shares. Posts receiving most likes and shares generally have an image with a caption that refers to the victimisation of Muslims. An image of a poster that states ‘Stop killing us because we are Muslims’ is an example with almost 200 likes and 200 shares within 24 hours. Similarly, rhetoric that expounds the religious schism between Muslims and Buddhists receives significant attention; for instance, a video entitled ‘Buddhist terrorist stoning on Muslim women and children’. Whether the trends relating to religion derive from the history and nature of the conflict, the demographic and interests of the audience, or the agendas of interest groups needs further study. The strength of this trend and the vehemence of discussion associated with it make it important to keep note of.

Core Theme: Perceived Injustice
During the first half of 2013, the posts that have attracted most commentary and most shares are those that depict children as victims and/or Buddhist monks as aggressors. Both of these are visual demonstrations of injustice. Perceived injustice is the core theme that underscores the bulk of the dialogue and is a key element that can translate awareness to activity. Activity may comprise passive action through commenting on and forwarding information, or more involved acts such as marches and protests.

The numbers of ‘likes’ received by Rohingya pages are comparable to the Facebook activity evident in the Delhi Rape Case in early 2013. The two cases are significantly different with respect to genesis, development, focus, and time-frame but they share the common and potent theme of perceived injustice. Whether engagement and participation with the Rohingya issue will remain in the realm of the virtual world or manifest as more physical forms of activism is uncertain at present. What is certain is that the issue will not be confined to Myanmar.

The Evolving Image
Refugees are the tangible harbingers of increasing awareness of the events in Myanmar. Recent news articles from India, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore convey the challenges and complications of this new wave of refugees. This ensuing reality will likely see the issue maintain a presence on Facebook, though trends in sentiment may change. Already, the beginnings of resentment and hostility towards the arrival of Rohingyan refugees are surfacing through Rohingya Facebook pages. As the situation progresses, these voices may well increase. The winds of sentiment can be fickle and the perceived injustice of today may become the perceived imposition of tomorrow.