Meta in Myanmar, Part II: The Crisis

This is the second post in a series on what Meta did in Myanmar and what the broader technology community can learn from it. It will make a lot more sense if you read the first post—these first two are especially tightly linked and best understood as a single story. There’s also a meta-post with things like terminology notes, sourcing information, and a corrections changelog.

But in case you haven’t read Part I, or in case you don’t remember all billion words of it…

Let’s recap

In the years leading up to the worst violence against the Rohingya people, a surge of explicit calls for the violent annihilation of the Rohingya ethnic minority flare up across Myanmar—in speeches by military officers and political party members, in Buddhist temples, in YouTube videos, through anonymous Bluetooth-transmitted messages in cafes, and, of course, on Facebook.

What makes Facebook special, though, is that it’s everywhere. It’s on every phone, which is in just about every home. Under ultra-rigid military control, the Burmese have long relied on unofficial information—rumors—to get by. And now the country’s come online extremely quickly, even in farming villages that aren’t yet wired for electricity.

And into all the phones held in all the hands of all these people who are absolutely delighted to connect and learn and better understand the world around them, Facebook is distributing and accelerating professional-grade hatred and disinformation whipped up in part by the extremist wing of Myanmar’s widely beloved Buddhist religious establishment.

It’s a very bad setup.

The dangers rising in Myanmar in the mid-2010s aren’t only clear in hindsight: For years, Burmese and western civil society experts, digital rights advocates, tech folks—even Myanmar’s own government—have been warning Meta that Facebook is fueling a slide toward genocide. In 2012 and 2014, waves of—sometimes state-supported—communal violence occur; the Burmese government even directly connects unchecked incitement on Facebook to one of the riots and blocks the site to stop the violence.

Meta has responded by getting local Burmese groups to help it translate its rules and reporting flow, but there’s no one to deal with the reports. For years, Meta employs a total of one Burmese-speaking moderator for this country of 50M+ people—which by the end of 2015 they increased to four.

This brings us to 2016, when Meta doubles down on connection.

The next billion

In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg announces the launch of Facebook’s new global internet-expansion initiative, Facebook will lead the program with six other for-profit technology companies: two semiconductor companies, two handset makers, a telecom, and Opera. There’s a launch video, too, with lots of very global humans doing celebratory human things set to pensive piano notes with a JFK speech about world peace playing over it.1

Alongside the big announcement, Zuckerberg posts a memo about his plans, titled Is Connectivity a Human Right? Facebook’s whole deal, he writes, is to make the world more open and connected:

But as we started thinking about connecting the next 5 billion people, we realized something important: the vast majority of people in the world don’t have any access to the internet.

The problem, according to Zuckerberg, is that data plans were too costly—which is because of missing infrastructure. His memo then makes a brief detour through economics, explaining that internet access == no more zero-sum resources == global prosperity and happiness:

Before the internet and the knowledge economy, our economy was primarily industrial and resource-based. Many dynamics of resource-based economies are zero sum. For example, if you own an oil field, then I can’t also own that same oil field. This incentivizes those with resources to hoard rather than share them. But a knowledge economy is different and encourages worldwide prosperity. It’s not zero sum. If you know something, that doesn’t stop me from knowing it too. In fact, the more things we all know, the better ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be.

And in Zuckerberg’s account, Facebook is really doing the work, putting in the resources required to open all of these benefits to everyone:

Since the internet is so fundamental, we believe everyone should have access and we’re investing a significant amount of our energy and resources into making this happen. Facebook has already invested more than $1 billion to connect people in the developing world over the past few years, and we plan to do more.2

As various boondoggles have recently demonstrated, social media executives are not necessarily brilliant people, but neither is Mark Zuckerberg a hayseed. What his new Next Billion” initiative to connect the world“ will do is build and reinforce monopolistic structures that give underdeveloped countries not real internet access” but…mostly just Facebook, stripped down and zero-rated so that using it doesn’t rack up data charges.

The initiative debuts to enthusiastic coverage in the US tech press, and many mainstream outlets.3 The New York Times contributes a more skeptical perspective:

[Social media] companies have little choice but to look overseas for growth. More than half of Americans already use Facebook at least once a month, for instance, and usage in the rest of the developed world is similarly heavy. There is nearly one active cellphone for every person on earth, making expansion a challenge for carriers and phone makers.

Poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America present the biggest opportunity to reach new customers—if companies can figure out how to get people there online at low cost.4

In June of 2013, Facebook had 1.1 billion monthly active users, only 198 million of which were in the US. As I write this post in 2023, the number of monthly active users is up to 3 billion, only 270 million of which are in the US. So usage numbers in the US have only risen 36% in ten years, while monthly active users everywhere else went up 188%.5 By 2022, 55% of all social media use was in Asia.6

Whenever you read about Meta’s work connecting the world,” I think it’s good to keep those figures in mind.

But just because the growth was happening globally didn’t mean that Meta was attending to what its subsidized access was doing outside the US and Western Europe.

In An Ugly Truth, their 2021 book about Meta’s inner workings, New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecelia Kang write that no one at Meta was responsible for assessing cultural and political dynamics as new communities came online, or even tracking whether they had linguistically and culturally competent moderators to support each new country.

A Meta employee who worked on the Next One Billion initiative couldn’t remember anyone directly questioning Mark or Sheryl about whether there were safeguards in place or raising something that would qualify as a concern or warning for how Facebook would integrate into non-American cultures.”7

In 2015, rebrands as Free Basics after the initiative attracts broad criticism for working against net neutrality—it’s a PR move that foreshadows the big rebrand from Facebook to Meta shortly after Frances Haugen delivers her trove of internal documents to the SEC in 2021.8

In 2016, it’s time to roll out Free Basics in Myanmar, alongside a stripped-down version of Facebook called Facebook Flex that lets people view text for free and then pay for image and video data.9 Facebook is already super-popular in Myanmar for reasons covered in the previous post, but when Myanmar’s largest telecom, MPT, launches Free Basics and Facebook Flex, Facebook’s Myanmar monthly active user count more than doubles from a little over 7 million users in 2015 to at least 15 million in 2017. (Several US media sources say 30 million, though I don’t think I believe them.)10

But I want to be clear—for a ton of people across Myanmar, getting even a barebones internet was life-changingly great.

Before, I just had to watch the clouds”

In early 2017, journalist Doug Bock Clark interviewed people in Myanmar—including MIDO cofounder Nay Phone Latt—about the internet for Wired.

Clark quotes a farmer who cultivates the tea plantation his family has worked for generations in Shan State:

I have always lived in the same town with about 900 people, which is in a very beautiful forest but also very isolated. When I was a child, we lived in wooden houses and used candles at night, and the mountain footpaths were too small even for oxcarts. For a long time, life didn’t change.

In 2014, the tea farmer’s town got a cell tower, and in 2016 a local NGO demonstrated an app that offered weather forecasts, market prices, and more. That really changed things:

Being able to know the weather in advance is amazing—before, I just had to watch the clouds! And the market information is very important. Before, we would sell our products to the brokers for very low prices, because we had no idea they sold them for higher prices in the city. But in the app I can see what the prices are in the big towns, so I don’t get cheated…

This brings me back to Craig Mod’s essay about his ethnographic work in rural Myanmar that I quoted from a lot in Part I of this series. Here, Mod is talking about internet use with a group of farmers: The lead farmer mentions Facebook and the others fall in. Facebook! Yes yes! They use Facebook every day. They feel that spending data on Facebook is a worthwhile investment.”

One of the farmers wants to show Mod a post, and Mod and his colleagues speculate while the post loads:

Earlier, he said to us, lelthamar asit—Like any real farmer, I know the land. And so we wonder: What will he show us? A new farming technique? News about the upcoming election? Analysis on its impact on farmers? He shows us: A cow with five legs. He laughs. Amazing, no? Have you ever seen such a thing?11

It’s a charming story. But it’s hard not to feel a little ill, reading back from the perspective of 2023.

In the middle of a video podcast interview, Frances Haugen relates a story in the context of Meta trying to make tooling for reporting misinformation:

And one of our researchers said, you know, that sounds really obvious. Like that sounds like it would be a thing that would work. Except for when we went in and did interviews in India, people are coming online so fast that when we talk to people with master’s degrees… They say things like, why would someone put something fake on the Internet? That sounds like a lot of work.12

This anecdote is meant to point to the relative naiveté of Indian Facebook users, but honestly I recognize the near-universal humanity of the idea—that all of that manufacturing would just be too much work for regular people to do! It’s the argument against conspiracies in general. For those of us whose brains haven’t been ruined by the internet, it’s reasonable to think that regular people just wouldn’t go to all that trouble.

As it happens, in Myanmar and lots of other places, it’s not only regular people doing the work of disinformation and incitement, and we’ll get to that later. But regular people across Myanmar are reading all these anti-Rohingya messages and looking at the images and watching the videos, and…a lot of them are buying it.

Everyone knows they’re terrorists”

This brings me back to Faine Greenwood’s essay that I also quoted from a lot in the previous post, and specifically to Greenwood’s honest-to-god Thomas Friedman moment” in a Burmese cab back in 2013:

The driver was a charming young Burmese man who spoke good English, and we chatted about the usual things for a bit: the weather (sticky), how I liked Yangon (quite a bit, hungry dogs aside), and my opinion on Burmese food (I’m a fan).

Then he asked me what I was in town for, and I told him that I’d come to write about the Internet. Oh, yes, I’ve got a Facebook account now,” he said, with great enthusiasm. It is very interesting. Learning a lot. I didn’t know about all the bad things the Bengalis had been doing.” 

Bad things?” I asked, though I knew what he was going to say next. 

Killing Buddhists, stealing their land. There’s pictures on Facebook. Everyone knows they’re terrorists,” he replied. 

Oh, fuck,” I thought.13

Greenwood’s story closely parallels one Matt Schissler tells reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang for An Ugly Truth. (Schissler is one of the people delivering dire warnings to Meta in Part I of this series.)

In Schissler’s story, it’s also 2013, and he’s starting to see some really hair-raising stuff. His Buddhist friends start relating their conspiracy theories about the Rohingya and showing him grainy cell phone photos of bodies they said were of Buddhist monks killed by Muslims.” They’re telling him ISIS fighters are on their way to Myanmar.

This narrative is even coming from a journalist friend, who calls to warn Schissler of a Muslim plot to attack the country. The journalist shows him a video as proof:

Schissler could tell that the video was obviously edited, dubbed over in Burmese with threatening language. He was a person who should have known better, and he was just falling for, believing, all this stuff.”14

It’s miserably hot in Myanmar when Craig Mod is there in 2016—steam-broiling even in the shade, and the heat shows up a lot in Mod’s notes. His piece ends with a grace note about a weather forecast:

Farmer Number Fifteen loves the famous Myanmar weatherman U Tun Lwin, now follows him on Facebook. I hunt U Tun Lwin down, follow him too, in solidarity, although I’m pretty sure I know what tomorrow’s weather will be.15

When I reread Mod’s essay about halfway through my research for this series, my eye caught on that name: U Tun Lwin. I’d just seen it somewhere.

It was in the findings report of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (just the UN Mission” in the rest of this post).

It was there because in the fall of 2016, about a year after Craig was in Myanmar and as a wave of extreme state violence against the Rohingya is kicking off, there’s this Facebook post. The UN Mission reports that Dr. Tun Lwin, a well-known meteorologist with over 1.5 million followers on Facebook, called on the Myanmar people to be united to secure the west gate.’” (The west gate” is the border with Bangladesh, and this is a reference to the idea that the Rohingya are actually all illegal Bengali” immigrants.)

Myanmar, Tun Lwin continued in his post, does not tolerate invaders,” and its people must be alert now that there is a common enemy.” As of August 2018, when the UN Mission published their report, Tun Lwin’s post was still up on Facebook. It had 47,000 reactions, over 830 comments, and nearly 10,000 shares. In the comments, people called the existence of the Rohingya in Rakhine State a Muslim invasion” and demanded that the Rohingya be uprooted and eradicated.16

The longest civil war

I need to say a little bit about the Tatmadaw, for reasons that will almost immediately become clear.

Tatmadaw (literally grand army”) is the umbrella term for Myanmar’s armed forces—it includes the army, navy, and air force, but a Tatmadaw officer also oversees the national police force. There’s a ton of history I have to elide, but the two crucial things to know are that Tatmadaw generals have been running Myanmar (or heavily influencing its government) since the country gained independence, and the military’s been at war with multiple ethnic armed groups throughout Myanmar since just after the end of WWII.17

These conflicts—by some accountings, the longest-running civil war in the world—have been marked by the Tatmadaw’s intense violence against civilians. The UN Mission findings report that I cite throughout this series includes detailed accounts of Tatmadaw atrocities targeting civilian members of ethnic minorities in Kachin and Shan States. Human Rights Watch and many other organizations have detailed Tatmadaw brutalities focusing on ethnic minorities in Karen State and elsewhere in Myanmar.18

Information about these conflicts and atrocities was readily available in English throughout Meta’s expansion into the region. I include this brief and inadequate history to explain that it was not difficult, in this period, to learn what the Tatmadaw really was, and what they were capable of doing to civilians.

Which brings us, finally, to what happened to the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017.

Clearance operations

Content warning for these next two sections: I’m going to be brief and avoid graphic descriptions, but these are atrocities, including the torture, rape, and murder of adults and children.

2016 was supposed to be the first year in Myanmar’s new story. In the landmark 2015 general elections in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins a supermajority, and takes office in the spring of 2016. This is a huge deal—obviously most of all within Myanmar, but also internationally, because it looks like Myanmar’s moving closer to operating as a true democracy. But the Rohingya are excluded from the vote, and from a national peace conference held that summer to try to establish a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic minority groups.19

The approximately 140,000 Rohingya people displaced in the 2012 violence are at this point largely still living in IDP (internally displaced person) camps and deprived of the neccesities of life, and the Myanmar government has continued tightening—or eliminating—the already nearly impossible paths to citizenship and a more normal life for the Rohingya as whole.20

The violence has continued, as well. According to a 2016 US State Department Atrocities Prevention Report,” the Rohingya also continued to experience extremist mob attacks, alongside governmental abuses including torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services.”21

This is all background for what happens next.

I give this accounting not to be shocking or emotionally manipulative, but because I don’t think we can assess and rationally discuss Meta’s responsibilities—in Myanmar and elsewhere—unless we allow ourselves to understand what happened to the human beings who took the damage.

In October of 2016, a Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacks Burmese posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, killing nine border officers and four Burmese soldiers. The Tatmadaw respond with what they called clearance operations,” nominally aimed at the insurgents but in fact broadly targeting all Rohingya people.22

A 2016 report from Amnesty International—and, later, the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar—document the Tatmadaw’s actions, including the indiscriminate rape and murder of Rohingya civilians, the arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Rohingya men including the elderly, forced starvation, and the destruction of Rohingya villages.23 Tens of thousands of Rohingya flee over the border to Bangladesh.24

Through the winter of 2016 and into 2017, bursts of violence continue—Tatmadaw officers beating Rohingya civilians, Buddhist mobs in Rakhine State attacking Rohingya people, Rohingya militants killing people they saw as betrayers. Uneasy times.

Then, on the morning of August 25th, 2017, ARSA fighters mount crude, largely unsuccessful attacks on about 30 Burmese security posts.25 Simultaneously, according to an Amnesty investigation, ARSA fighters murder at least 99 Hindu civilians, including women and children, in two villages in Northern Rakhine State.26 (Despite the mass-scale horrors that would follow, this act was, by any measure, an atrocity.)

And after that, everything really goes to hell.

In response to the ARSA attacks, the Tatmadaw begins its second wave of clearance operations and begins, in Amnesty International’s words, systematically attacking the entire Rohingya population in villages across northern Rakhine State.”27

Accelerating genocide

I’ve worked with atrocity documentation before. I still don’t know a right way to approach what comes next. I do know that the people who document incidents of communal and state violence for organizations like Medicins Sans Frontieres and the UN Human Rights Council use precise, economical language. Spend enough time with their meticulous tables and figures the precision itself begins to feel like rage.

Based on their extensive and intimate survey work with refugees who escaped to Bangladesh, Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that in a single month between August 25th and September 24th of 2017, about 11,000 Rohingya die in Myanmar, including 1,700 children. Of these, about 8,000 people are violently killed, including about 1,200 children under the age of five.28

The UN Mission’s report notes that in attacks on Rohingya villages, women and children, including infants, are specifically targeted.”29 According to MSF, most of the murdered children under five are shot or burned, but they note that about 7% are beaten to death.30

In what Amnesty International calls a relentless and systematic campaign,” the Tatmadaw publicly rape hundreds—almost certainly thousands—of Rohingya women and girls, many of whom they also mutilate. They indiscriminately arrest and torture Rohingya men and boys as terrorists.” They push whole communities into starvation by burning their markets and blocking access to their farms. They burn hundreds of Rohingya villages to the ground.31

Over the ensuing weeks, more than 700,000 people (”more than 702,000 people,” Amnesty writes, including children”) flee to squalid, overcrowded, climate-vulnerable refugee camps in Bangladesh.32 That’s more than 80% of the Rohingya previously living in Rakhine State.

The UN Mission’s findings report comes out about a year later.

I’ve cited it a lot already in this post and the previous one. The document runs to 444 pages, opens with a detailed background for the 2017 crisis and then becomes a catalog of thousands of collective and individual incidents of the Tatmadaw’s systematic torture, rape, and murder of members of Rohingya—and, to a lesser but still horrific extent, of other ethnic minorities across Myanmar. The scale and level of detail are beyond anything else I’ve encountered; accounts of mutilations, violations, and the murder of children in front of their parents go on page after page after page. My honest advice is that you don’t read it.33

Classifying incidents of violence as genocide is a lengthy, fraught, and uneven process. The UN Human Rights Council’s High Commissioner calls the events in Myanmar a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”34 The International Court of Justice is currently hearing a case against Myanmar brought under the international Genocide Convention.35 The US State Department officially classifies the events in Myanmar as a genocide, as do many genocide scholars and institutions. In this series, I follow the usage of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, in whose work I have complete confidence.36


If you’ve read this far, then first, thank you. Maybe get a drink of water or something.

Second, I think you may be—probably should be—wondering how many of the things I’ve just related can be connected to something as relatively inconsequential as Facebook posts.

I want to do a tiny summary and then preview some arguments that I won’t really be able to dig into until the end of this post and especially in the next one, when I finally get into the documents and investigations that show what was happening under the hood of Meta’s content recommendation engines.

The escalation from relatively isolated incidents of anti-Rohingya violence pre-2012 into the two big waves of attacks that year, the semi-communal semi-state violence in 2016, and the full-on Tatmadaw-led genocide in 2017 was accompanied by an overwhelming rise in Facebook-mediated disinformation and violence-inciting messages.

And as I’ve tried to show and will keep illustrating with examples, these messages built intense anti-Rohingya beliefs and fears throughout Myanmar’s mainstream Buddhist culture. Those beliefs and fears quite clearly led to direct incidents of communal (non-state) violence.

Determining whether those beliefs also constituted even a partial manfactured mainstream consent to the Tatmadaw’s actions in 2016 and 2017 is both out of my lane and honestly maybe unknowable, given the impossibility of untangling what was known by whom, and when. What I think I can say is that they ran in exact parallel to the Tatmadaw’s genocidal operations.

The overwhelming volume and velocity of this hate campaign would not have been possible without Meta, which did four main things to enable it:

  1. Meta bought and maneuvered its way into the center of Myanmar’s online life and then inhabited that position with a recklessness that was impervious to warnings by western technologists, journalists, and people at every level of Burmese society. (This is most of Part I.)
  2. After the 2012 violence, Meta mounted a content moderation response so inadequate that it would be laughable if it hadn’t been deadly. (Discussed in Part I and also below.)
  3. With its recommendation algorithms and financial incentive programs, Meta devastated Myanmar’s new and fragile online information sphere and turned thousands of carefully laid sparks into flamethrowers. (Discussed below and in Part III.)
  4. Despite its awareness of similar covert influence campaign based on inauthentic behavior”—aka fake likes, comments, and Pages—Meta allowed an enormous and highly influential covert influence operation to thrive on Burmese-language Facebook throughout the run-up to the peak of the 2016 and 2017 ethnic cleansing,” and beyond. (Part III.)

The lines of this argument have all been drawn by better informed people than me. Amnesty International’s 2022 report, The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” directly implicates Meta in the genocidal propaganda campaigns and furor that led up to the Tatmadaw’s atrocities in Rakhine State. The viral acceleration of dehumanizing and violent posts in 2017, Amnesty writes, made those messages appear ubiquitous on Burmese-language Facebook, creating a sense that everyone in Myanmar shared these views, helping to build a shared sense of urgency in finding a solution’ to the Bengali problem’ and ultimately building support for the military’s 2017 clearance operations’.”37

And as I noted in the intro to the first post in this series, the UN Mission’s own lead investigator stated that Facebook played a determining role” in the violence.38

But again, I think it’s reasonable and important to ask whether that can really be possible, and to look carefully at the evidence.

On one hand it seems obvious that Meta was indeed negligent about expanding content moderation, and deeply misguided in continuing to expand into Myanmar without fixing the tide of genocidal messages that experts had been warning them about since at least 2012. Meta’s behavior, after all those years of warnings, is hard to describe as anything but callous.

But does any of that make them responsible for what the Tatmadaw did?

Let’s start with the content moderation problem. Which means that we have to look at some of the actual content Meta allowed to circulate on Burmese-language Facebook during the waves of violence in 2016 and 2017.

Rumors and lies

Content warning: Hate speech, ethnic slurs.

On September 12, 2017, during the peak of the Tatmadaw’s genocidal attacks on the Rohingya, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting released an update on their two-year project in Myanmar with a dozen-odd local journalists and monitors who tracked and reported on hate speech and incitement to violence.

The post is called How Social Media Spurred Myanmar’s Latest Violence,” and it’s written by IWPRs regional director, Alan Davis. It’s both cringey—Davis starts with a dig at how backward and superstitious the Buddhist establishment is—and obviously rooted in real moral anguish at having failed to prevent the disaster. Much of the meat of the post is focused on Facebook, and Davis’s observations are sharp (emphasis mine):

The vast majority of hate speech was on social media, particularly Facebook.… while not all hate speech was anti-Muslim or anti-Rohingya, the overwhelming majority certainly was. Much was juvenile and just plain nasty, while a good deal was insidious and seemed to be increasingly organised. A lot of it was also smart and it was clear a great deal of time and energy had gone into some of the postings. 

Over time, we saw the hate speech becoming more targeted and militaristic. Wild allegations spread, including claims of Islamic State (IS) flags flying over mosques in Yangon where munitions were being stored, of thwarted plots to blow up the 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and supposed cases of Islamic agents smuggling themselves across the border.  

…we felt a clear sense that in the absence of any kind of political leadership that a darkening and deepening vacuum that would ultimately result in a violent reckoning.… Most importantly, we warned that rumours and lies peddled and left unchecked might end up creating their own reality. 39

On October 30, 2017, just after the full-scale ethnic cleansing began, Sitagu Sayadaw, a Buddhist monk and one of the most respected religious leaders in Myanmar, gave a sermon to an audience of soldiers—and to the rest of the country, via a Facebook livestream. His sermon featured a passage from the Mahavamsa in which monks comfort a Buddhist king consumed by guilt after leading a war in which millions died:

Don’t worry, your Highness. Not a single one of those you killed was Buddhist. They didn’t follow the Buddhist teachings and therefore they did not know what was good or bad. Not knowing good or bad is the nature of animals. Out of over five hundred thousand you killed, only one and a half were worth to be humans. Therefore it is a small sin and does not deserve your worry.40

The UN Mission’s report includes many other examples of religious, governmental, and military figures comparing Rohingya people to fleas, weeds, and animals—and in some cases, making explicit reference to the necessity of emulating both the Holocaust and the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.41

The report also includes specific examples of the kinds of dehumanizing and inciting posts and comments going around Facebook in 2017. I’m only going to include a few, but I think it’s important to be clear about what Meta let circulate, months into a full-on ethnic cleansing operation:

  • In early 2017, a Burmese patriot” posts a graphic video of police beating citizens in another country, with the comment: Watch this video. The kicks and the beatings are very brutal. I watch the video and feel that it is not enough. In the future […] Bengali disgusting race of Kalar terrorists who sneaked into our country by boat, need to be beaten like that. We need to beat them until we are satisfied.” (The post was still up on Facebook in July 2018.)
  • A widely shared August 2017 post: …the international community all condemned the actions of the Khoe Win Bengali [“Bengali that sneaked in”] terrorists. So, in this just war, to avenge the deaths of the ethnic people who got beheaded, and the policemen who got hacked into pieces, we are asking the Tatmadaw to turn these terrorists into powder and not leave any piece of them behind.”
  • Another post: Accusations of genocide are unfounded, because those that the Myanmar army is killing are not people, but animals. We won’t go to hell for killing these creatures that are not worth to be humans.”
  • Another post: If the (Myanmar) army is killing them, we Myanmar people can accept that… current killing of the Kalar is not enough, we need to kill more!”42

Let’s look at some quantifiable data on the volume of extremist posts during the period—we don’t have much, because only Meta really knows, but we do have a couple of windows into the way things escalated.

By 2016, data analyst Raymond Serrato, who eventually goes to work for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been studying social media in Myanmar for a couple of years. So when when the Tatmadaw’s clearance operations swing into action in 2016, he’s already watching what’s happening in a big (55k member) Facebook group run by Ma Ba Tha supporters—a hangout for Buddhist patriots,” as Seratto describes it.43

What Serrato sees in this group is a rising curve in posting volume in the late summer of 2017 before the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks, and then spiking hard immediately after the attacks, as the Tatmadaw began the concentrated genocidal operation against the Rohingya.

Ray Serrato's graph of Facebook posts in the extremist Group, showing enormous spikes followed by long-term elevation of posting rates beginning in August, 2016.

Visualization by Raymond Serrato.

Serrato’s research is limited in scope—he’s only using the Groups API—but his snapshot of how hardline nationalist post volume went through the roof in 2017 clearly runs alongside the qualitative reports from Burmese and western observers—and victims.

What Meta did about it

Across the first-person narratives from Burmese and western tech and civil society people, there’s a thread of increasingly intense frustration—bleeding into desperation—among the people who tried, over and over, to get individual pieces of dehumanizing propaganda, graphic disinformation, and calls to violence removed from Facebook by reporting them to Facebook.

They report posts and never hear anything. They report posts that clearly call for violence and eventually hear back that they’re not against Facebook’s Community Standards. This is also true of the Rohingya refugees Amnesty International interviews in Bangladesh—they were also reporting posts demonizing and threatening their communities, and it didn’t help.44

Writing on behalf of the Burmese and western people in the private Facebook group with Facebook employees, Htaike Htaike Aung and Victoire Rio summarize the situation in 2016, during the first wave of clearance operations”:

…Facebook was unequipped to proactively address risk concerns. They relied nearly exclusively on us, as local partners, to point them to problematic content. Upon receiving our escalations…they would typically address the copy we escalated but take no further steps to remove duplicate copies or address the systemic policy or enforcement gaps that these escalations brought to light.… We kept asking for more points of contact, better escalation protocols, and interlocutors with knowledge of the language and context who could make decisions on the violations without requiring the need for translators and further delays. We got none of that.45

And as we now know, Meta’s fleet of Burmese-speaking contractors had grown to a total of four at the end of 2015. According to Reuters, in 2018, Meta had about 60 people reviewing reported content from Myanmar via the Accenture-run Project Honey Badger” contract operation in Kuala Lumpur, plus three more in Dublin, to monitor Myanmar’s approximately 18 million Facebook users.46 So in 2016 and 2017, Meta has somewhere between 4 and 63-ish Burmese speakers monitoring hate speech and violence-inciting messages in Myanmar. And zero of them, incidentally, in Myanmar itself.

I don’t know how many content reviewers Meta employed globally in 2016 and 2017, so we have to skip ahead to get an estimate. In his 2018 appearance before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mark Zuckerberg is asked by Texas House Representative Pete Olsen whether Meta employs about 27,000 people. Zuckerberg says yes.

OLSON: I’ve also been told that about 20,000 of those people, including contractors, do work on data security. Is that correct?

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. The 27,000 number is full time employees. And the security and content review includes contractors, of which there are tens of thousands. Or will be. Will be by the time that we hire those.47

There are several remarkable things about this exchange, including that when Rep. Olsen afterward sums up, incorrectly, that this means that more than half of Meta’s employees deal with security practices,” Zuckerberg doesn’t correct him, but I’ll just emphasize that Meta is claiming to have (or be hiring!) tens of thousands of contractors to work on security and content review, in 2018. And for Myanmar, where by 2018 the genocide of the Rohingya has already peaked, they’ve managed to assemble about 63.

As it turns out, even the United Nations’ own Mission, acting in an official capacity, can’t get Facebook to remove posts explicitly calling for the murder of a human rights defender.

Don’t leave him alive”

Both the UN Mission’s findings and Amnesty International’s big report tell the story of this person—an international aid worker targeted for his alleged cooperation with the Mission. He’s unnamed in the UN report; Amnesty calls him Michael.”

Here’s how it happens: Michael” does an interview with a local journalist in Myanmar about the situation he’d observed in Rakhine State, and the interview goes viral on Facebook.

The response by anti-Rohingya extremists is immediate and intense: The most dangerous Facebook post made about Michael features a picture of his opened passport and describes him as a Muslim” and national traitor.” The comments on the Facebook post call for Michael’s murder: If this animal is still around, find him and kill him. There needs to be government officials in NGOs.” He is a Muslim. Muslims are dogs and need to be shot.” Don’t leave him alive. Remove his whole race. Time is ticking.”48

Strangers start recognizing Michael from the viral posts, and warning him that he’s in danger. The threats expand to include his family.

The UN Mission team investigating the attacks on the Rohingya knows Michael. They get involved, reporting the post with the photo of Michael’s passport in it to Facebook four times. Each time, they get the same response: the post had been reviewed and doesn’t go against one of [Facebook’s] specific Community Standards.”49

By this point, the post has been shared more than 1,000 times, and many others have appeared. Michael’s friends and colleagues in Myanmar and in the US are reporting everything they can find—some posts get deleted, but hundreds more appear, like a game of whack-a-mole.”50

The UN team escalates and emails an official Facebook email account; no one responds. At this point, the team tells Michael that it’s time to get out of Myanmar—it’s too dangerous to stay.

Several weeks later, the UN Mission is finally able to get Facebook to take down the original post, but only then with the help of a contact at Facebook. And copies of the post keep circulating on Facebook.

The Mission team write that they encountered many similar cases where individuals, usually human rights defenders or journalists, become the target of an online hate campaign that incites or threatens violence.”

In their briefing document about the many attempts to get Facebook to stop fueling the violence in Myanmar, Htaike Htaike Aung and Victoire Rio write:

Despite the escalating risks, we did not see much progress over that period, and Facebook was just as unequipped to deal with the escalation of anti-Rohingya rhetoric and violence in August 2017 as they had been in 2016.… Ultimately, it was still down to us, as local partners, to warn them. We simply couldn’t cope with the scale.51

Meta’s active harms: the incentives

In a 2016 interview, Burmese civil-society and digital-literacy activists Htaike Htaike Aung and Phyu Phyu Thi speak about the work their organization, MIDO, was doing to counter hate speech and misinformation. Which was a lot: They’re doing digital literacy and media literacy training, they’ve built more than 60 digital literacy centers throughout Myanmar, they monitor online hate speech, and they run a Real or Not” fact-checking page for Burmese users.52

Even so, Myanmar’s civil society organizations and under-resourced activists simply can’t keep pace with what’s happening online—not without action on Meta’s part to sharply reduce and deviralize genocidal content at the product-design level.

There were—and are—ways for Meta to change its inner machinery to reduce or eliminate the harms it does. But in 2016, the company actually does something that makes the situation much worse.

In addition to continuing to algorithmically accelerate extremist messages, Meta introduces a new program that took a wrecking ball to Myanmar’s online media landscape: Instant Articles.

If you’re from North America or Europe, you probably know Instant Articles as one of the ways Meta persuaded media organizations to publish their work directly on Facebook, ostensibly in exchange for fast loading and and shared ad revenue.

Instant Articles was kind of a bust for actual media organizations, but in many places, including in Myanmar, it became a way for clickfarms to make a lot of money—ten times the average Burmese salary—by producing and propagating super-sensationalist fake news.

In a country where Facebook is synonymous with the internet,” the MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao writes, the low-grade content overwhelmed other information sources.”53

The result for Myanmar’s millions of Facebook users is an explosive decompression of its online information sphere. In 2015, before Instant Articles expands to Myanmar, 6 out of 10 websites getting the most engagement on Facebook in Myanmar are legitimate” media organizations. A year after Instant Articles hits the country, legitimate publishers make up only 2 of the top 10 publishers on Facebook. By 2018, the number of legit publishers on the list is zero—all 10 are fake news.54

This is the online landscape in place in 2016 and 2017.

Then there are the algorithms.

People saw the vilest content the most”

When he speaks to Amnesty International about his experience being targeted on Facebook, Michael (who was in Myanmar 2013–2018) also talks about what Facebook’s News Feed looked like in Myanmar in more general terms:

The vitriol against the Rohingya was unbelievable online—the amount of it, the violence of it. It was overwhelming. There was just so much. That spilled over into everyday life…

The news feed in general [was significant]—seeing a mountain of hatred and disinformation being levelled [against the Rohingya], as a Burmese person seeing that, I mean, that’s all that was on people’s news feeds in Myanmar at the time. It reinforced the idea that these people were all terrorists not deserving of rights. This mountain of misinformation definitely contributed [to the outbreak of violence].”

And elsewhere in the same interview:

The fact that the comments with the most reactions got priority in terms of what you saw first was big—if someone posted something hate-filled or inflammatory it would be promoted the most—people saw the vilest content the most. I remember the angry reactions seemed to get the highest engagement. Nobody who was promoting peace or calm was getting seen in the news feed at all.”55

So let’s remember, by 2016, active observers of social media—and Facebook in particular—have a pretty good sense of what makes things go viral. And clearly there are organized groups in Myanmar—MaBaTha’s hardline monks, for one—who are super skilled at getting a lot of eyes on their anti-Rohingya Facebook.

But the big, super-frustrating problem with trying to understand Facebook’s effects through accounts like these is that they only describe what can be deduced from the network’s exterior surfaces—what people see, what they report, what happens afterward. I believe these accounts—I especially trust the statements from Burmese people working on the ground—but they’re all coming from outside Facebook’s machinery.

Which is why we’re incredibly lucky to get, just a few years later, an inside view of what was really happening—and what Meta knew about it as it happened.

Next up: Part III: The Inside View.

  1. Technology Leaders Launch Partnership to Make Internet Access Available to All,” August 20, 2013, archived at The promotional video is Every one of us,”, August 20, 2013.↩︎

  2. Is Connectivity A Human Right? Mark Zuckerberg,, August 20, 2013 (the memo is undated, so I’m taking the date from contemporary reports and other launch documents).↩︎

  3. Facebook And 6 Phone Companies Launch To Bring Affordable Access To Everyone,” Josh Constine, TechCrunch, August 20, 2013; Facebook’s initiative aims to connect the next 5 billion people’,” Stuart Dredge, The Guardian, August 21, 2013; Facebook project aims to connect global poor,” AlJazeera America, August 21, 2013.↩︎

  4. Facebook Leads an Effort to Lower Barriers to Internet Access,” Vindu Goel, The New York Times, August 20, 2013.↩︎

  5. Meta Earnings Presentation, Q2 2023, July 26, 2023 (date from associated press release); Facebook’s Q2: Monthly Users Up 21% YOY To 1.15B, Dailies Up 27% To 699M, Mobile Monthlies Up 51% To 819M,” TechCrunch, July 24, 2013. (The actual earnings presentation deck from the 2013 call doesn’t seem to be online except as a few screencaps here and there, which is irritating.)↩︎

  6. Distribution of Worldwide Social Media Users in 2022, by Region,” Statista, 2022.↩︎

  7. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  8. What Happened to Facebook’s Grand Plan to Wire the World? Jessi Hempel, Wired, May 17, 2018; Facebook is changing its name to Meta as it focuses on the virtual world,” Elizabeth Dwoskin, The Washington Post, October 28, 2021. (That should be a paywall-free WaPo link, but it doesn’t always work.)↩︎

  9. Myanmar’s MPT launches Facebook’s Free Basics,” Joseph Waring, Mobile World Live, June 7, 2016.↩︎

  10. Hatebook: Why Facebook is losing the war on hate speech in Myanmar,” Reuters, August 15, 2018. (You may see bigger numbers elsewhere—in a 2017 New York Times article, Kevin Roose claims that Facebook had 30 million users in Myanmar in 2017. Roose doesn’t cite his sources, but the same range his uses, from two million to more than 30 million, shows up in The Atlantic and CBS News. I don’t think there’s any way this number can be right, but Meta doesn’t disclose this information.)↩︎

  11. The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar,” Craig Mod, The Atlantic, January 21, 2016.↩︎

  12. Facebook is Worse than You Think: Whistleblower Reveals All | Frances Haugen x Rich Roll,” The Rich Roll Podcast, September 7, 2023. This is a little outside my usual sourcing zone—Roll is a vegan athlete…influencer, I gather?—but Haugen does a lot of interviews, and sometimes the least formal ones turn up the most interesting statements. The context for the bit I quote comes in around 8:30 and the quote is at 9:19.↩︎

  13. [“Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 1,” Faine Greenwood, August 8, 2023.↩︎

  14. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021.↩︎

  15. The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar,” Craig Mod, The Atlantic, January 21, 2016.↩︎

  16. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018—the report landing page includes summaries, metadata, and infographics. Content warnings apply throughout, this is atrocity material.↩︎

  17. Ethnic Insurgencies and Peacemaking in Myanmar,” Tin Maung Maung Than, The Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies, No.66, Winter 2013.↩︎

  18. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018; They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again: The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State,” Human Rights Watch, June 9, 2005.↩︎

  19. Civil War in Myanmar,” the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, publish date not provided; updated April 25, 2023.↩︎

  20. The Burmese Labyrinth: A History of the Rohingya Tragedy, Carlos Sardiña Galache, Verso, 2020. The 140,000” figure is drawn from One year on: Displacement in Rakhine state, Myanmar,” a briefing note from the UN Human Rights Council published June 7, 2013.↩︎

  21. Atrocities Prevention Report: Targeting of and Attacks on Members of Religious Groups in the Middle East and Burma,” US Department of State, March 17, 2016.↩︎

  22. Myanmar: Security Forces Target Rohingya During Vicious Rakhine Scorched-Earth Campaign, Amnesty International, December 19, 2016.↩︎

  23. Myanmar: Security Forces Target Rohingya During Vicious Rakhine Scorched-Earth Campaign, Amnesty International, December 19, 2016; Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018.↩︎

  24. 21,000 Rohingya Muslims Flee to Bangladesh to Escape Persecution in Myanmar,” Ludovica Iaccino, The International Business Times, December 6, 2016.↩︎

  25. Rohingya Crisis: Finding out the Truth about Arsa Militants,” Jonathan Head, BBC, October 11, 2017.↩︎

  26. Myanmar: New evidence reveals Rohingya armed group massacred scores in Rakhine State,” Amnesty International, May 22, 2018.↩︎

  27. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  28. Rohingya Crisis—A Summary of Findings from Six Pooled Surveys,” Médecins Sans Frontières, December 9, 2017.↩︎

  29. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018↩︎

  30. Rohingya Crisis—A Summary of Findings from Six Pooled Surveys,” Médecins Sans Frontières, December 9, 2017.↩︎

  31. Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar,” Amnesty International, May 15, 2019 (dated PDF version).↩︎

  32. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  33. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018.↩︎

  34. UN Human Rights Chief Points to Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing’ in Myanmar,” UN News, September 11, 2017.↩︎

  35. World Court Rejects Myanmar Objections to Genocide Case,” Human Rights Watch, July 22, 2022.↩︎

  36. Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya in Burma,” Anthony Blinken, US Department of State, March 21, 2022. Country Case Studies: Burma,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, undated resource.↩︎

  37. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  38. U.N. investigators cite Facebook role in Myanmar crisis,” Reuters, March 12, 2018.↩︎

  39. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  40. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018.↩︎

  41. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018.↩︎

  42. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018.↩︎

  43. Revealed: Facebook hate speech exploded in Myanmar during Rohingya crisis,” Michael Safi, The Guardian, April 2, 2018.↩︎

  44. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021; The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022;↩︎

  45. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  46. Hatebook: Why Facebook is losing the war on hate speech in Myanmar,” Reuters, August 15, 2018.↩︎

  47. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  48. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  49. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  50. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  51. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  52. If It’s on the Internet It Must Be Right’: an Interview With Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation on the Use of the Internet and Social Media in Myanmar,” Rainer Einzenberger, Advances in Southeast Asian Studies (ASEAS), formerly the Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, December 30, 2016.↩︎

  53. How Facebook and Google Fund Global Misinformation,” Karen Hao, The MIT Technology Review, November 20, 2021. Karen Hao is so good on all of this, btw. One of the best.↩︎

  54. Revealed: Facebook hate speech exploded in Myanmar during Rohingya crisis,” Michael Safi, The Guardian, April 2, 2018.↩︎

  55. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

30 September 2023

Meta in Myanmar, Part I: The Setup

Technology is like a bomb in Myanmar.” —Kyaw Kyaw, frontman of Burmese punk band Rebel Riot 1

Back in early July, I started working on a quick series of posts about online structures of refuge and exposure. In a draft of what I meant to be the second post in the series, I tried to write a tight two or three paragraphs about the role Meta played in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and why it made me dubious about Threads. Over time, those two or three paragraphs turned into a long summary, then a detailed timeline, then an unholy hybrid of blog post and research paper.

What I learned in the process was so starkly awful that I finally set the whole series aside for a while until I could do a lot more reading and write something more substantial. Nearly three months later, I’m ready to share my notes.

Here’s a necessary personal disclosure: I’ve never trusted Facebook, mostly because I’ve been around tech for a long time and everything I’ve ever learned about the company looked like a red flag. Like, I’m on the record swearing about it.

But once I started to really dig in, what I learned was so much gnarlier and grosser and more devastating than what I’d assumed. The harms Meta passively and actively fueled destroyed or ended hundreds of thousands of lives that might have been yours or mine, but for accidents of birth. I say hundreds of thousands” because millions” sounds unbelievable, but by the end of my research I came to believe that the actual number is very, very large.

To make sense of it, I had to try to go back, reset my assumptions, and try build up a detailed, factual understanding of what happened in this one tiny slice of the world’s experience with Meta. The risks and harms in Myanmar—and their connection to Meta’s platform—are meticulously documented. And if you’re willing to spend time in the documents, it’s not that hard to piece together what happened.

I started down this path—in this series, on this site, over this whole year—because I want to help make better technologies and systems in service of a better world. And I think the only way to make better things is to thoroughly understand what’s happened so far. Put another way, I want to base decisions on transparently sourced facts and cautiously reasoned analysis, not on assumptions or vibes—mine or anyone else’s.

What I want to promise you, my imaginary reader, is that I’ve approached this with as much care and precision as I can. I cite a lot of documentation from humanitarian organizations and many well-sourced media reports, and also a bunch of internal Meta documentation. What I’m after is maybe something like a cultural-technical incident report. I hope it helps.

This is the first of four posts in the series. Thank you for reading.

I’ve put notes about terms (Meta vs. Facebook, Myanmar vs. Burma, etc.) and sources and warnings in a separate meta-post. If you’re someone who likes to know about that kind of thing, you might want to pop that post open in a tab. If you spot typos or inaccuracies, I’m reachable at erin at and appreciate all bug reports.

Content warning: I’m marking some sections and some cited sources with individual warnings, but this is a story with a genocide at its heart, so be aware of that going in. I’ve also included a small selection of hateful messages in this post and throughout the series so that it’s clear what we’re talking about when we talk about hate speech.” Some contain words that, used in specific contexts, constitute slurs. I put some notes about all of that in the meta post as well.

This is a story about tech

Even if you never read any further, know this: Facebook played what the lead investigator on the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (hereafter just the UN Mission”) called a determining role” in the bloody emergence of what would become the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.2

From far away, I think Meta’s role in the Rohingya crisis can feel blurry and debatable—it was content moderation fuckups, right? In a country they weren’t paying much attention to? Unethical and probably negligent, but come on, what tech company isn’t, at some point?

Plus, Meta has popped up in the press and before Congress to admit that they fucked up and have concrete plans to do better. They lost sleep over it, said Adam Mosseri, the person in charge of Facebook’s News Feed, back in March of 2018.

By that point in 2018, Myanmar’s military had murdered thousands of Rohingya people, including babies and children, and beaten, raped, tortured, starved, and imprisoned thousands more. About three-quarters of a million Rohingya had fled Myanmar to live in huge, disease-infested refugee camps in Bangladesh.

And Meta?

By that point, Meta had been receiving detailed and increasingly desperate warnings about Facebook’s role as an accelerant of genocidal propaganda in Myanmar for six years.

My big hope for the internet is that we handle the shit we need to handle to make sturdier, less poisoned/poisonous ways to connect and collaborate in the gnarly-looking decades ahead. I think that’s not just possible, but that it’s our responsibility to work toward it. Also, I’m pretty sure that despite the best intentions and the most transparent processes, we risk doing enormous harm if we don’t learn from the past. (Maybe even if we do.)

This series is for anyone who, like me—and despite everything not good about the tech world—has found themselves periodically heartened and sustained by open technology projects, online communities, and ways of being together even when we’re far apart.

And the thing I want you, and all of us, to remember about the sudden flowering of the internet in Myanmar in the 2010s is that in the beginning, it was incredibly welcome and so filled with hope.

Welcome to the internet

After decades of crushing state repression, a more democratic regime came into power in Myanmar in 2011 and gradually relaxed restrictions on the internet, and on speech more generally. Journalist and tech researcher Faine Greenwood (they/them) is working in Southeast Asia at the time, and gets caught up in the spirit of the moment, despite their skepticism about the benefits of the internet:

I’d connected with a Myanmar NGO dedicated to digital inclusion, and through them, I got a chance to meet and interview a number of brilliant and extremely online Burmese people, all of them brimming with long-suppressed, almost giddy, optimism about their country’s technological future.

It was hard for me not to share their enthusiasm, their massive relief at finally getting out from under the jackboot of a military regime that had tried to lock them away from the rest of their world for as long as they could remember. I came away from speaking with them with a warm, happy feeling about how online communication maybe, just maybe, really did have the power to unfuck the world.3

And online communication was coming in fast, as the price of SIM cards, which had been controlled by the ruling junta, dropped from the equivalent of $2,000 USD in 2009, to $250 in 2012, to $1.50 in 2014.4

Mobile adoption explodes, from less than one quarter of a percent of the population in 2011 to more than 90% in 2017.5 And smartphone use and internet uptake spikes with the mobile revolution instead of dragging along behind—a 2017 Bloomberg article does some flavor reporting to contextualize those numbers:

Thiri Thant Mon, owner of a small investment bank in the city, says she still remembers how magazines from the outside world used to arrive weeks late because censors needed time to comb through them.

Suddenly because we’re on internet,” she said, people realize what the rest of the world looks like. Now it’s like everybody on the street is talking about Trump. A few years ago, nobody knew what was happening in the next town.”6

In 2015, writer and photographer Craig Mod is working with a team doing internet ethnography in rural Myanmar on behalf of an organization that designs and builds hardware—including modern farming implements—to improve the lives of farmers, who make up the majority of Myanmar’s populace. (Disclosure: Craig and I have halfass-known each other for going on a couple of decades, and I’m a longtime fan of his work.)

Mod’s essay about his work is clearly the product of a sensitive eye and a nerd’s delight in the way new technology twines up with the unevenly distributed realities of daily life:

The village still lacks electricity although they’ve pooled funds and a dozen newly planted metal-power poles dot the fields, waiting to be wired up. Through our interpreter I ask, Where do you charge? Farmer Number Ten points to a car battery hanging in the corner onto which familiar USB wires are spliced.

The tech is all over the place, cheap but capable,” and Craig wonders if the one-smartphone-per-human result would make Nicholas Negroponte happy. There are no iPhones, no credit cards, no data plans: Everyone buys top-up from top-up shops, scratches off complex serial numbers printed in a small font, types them with special network codes into their phone dialers in a way that feels steampunkish, like they’re divining data. They feel each megabyte.”7

This is the point in the conversation when it becomes impossible not to talk about Facebook. Because in Myanmar, even back in 2012 and 2013, being online meant being on Facebook.

I’d read about Facebook’s superdominance in Amnesty International’s reporting, in long stories from Reuters and Wired and the NYT and the Guardian, in books, even in UN reports. But Mod’s notes bring to life both Facebook’s pervasiveness and the way Burmese people actually used it:

We ask about apps. The farmer uses [chat app] Viber and Facebook. He says he chats with a few friends on Facebook but mainly people he doesn’t know. Most of his Facebook friends are strangers. He tells us his brother installed the app for him, and set up his account. He doesn’t know the email address that was used. He gets most of his news from Facebook. The election looms and he loves the political updates.

Farmer Number Ten tells us he used to use radio for news but no more. He says he hasn’t turned the radio on in years. Other news apps—like one called TZ—use too much data. He’s data conscious. He uses Facebook mostly at night when the internet is fastest, and cheapest.

And speaking with the proprietor of a cellphone shop:

Facebook is the most popular app, he says. Nine out of ten people who come into the shop want Facebook. Ten months ago SIM prices dropped, data prices dropped, interest in Facebook jumped. I take note. Only half the people who come into the shop already have a Facebook account. The other half don’t know how to make one. I do that for them, he says. I am the account maker.

And what about other apps? He mentions a news app called TZ. Once popular, now less so. He brushes his hand aside and says it’s too data hungry. Everyone is data sensitive he says and reiterates: Facebook. Nobody needs a special app for their interests. Just search for your interest on Facebook. Facebook is the Internet.8

But how did Facebook get to be the internet?

In the early years, there’s a stripped-down version of the app kicking around that used less data than competitors’. But also, when Myanmar’s government opens up to two foreign telecom services, the stronger of the two, Norway’s Telenor, zero-rates” Facebook.9 Essentially, zero-rating is a selective subsidy; it means that customers won’t be charged for the data they use for some parts of the internet, but would be charged for others. For all of Telenor’s customers, using Facebook is free.

I want to briefly flip ahead to something Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen says in a 2021 interview:

Facebook bought the privilege of being the internet for the majority of languages in the world. It subsidized people’s use of its own platform, and said Hey, you can use anything you want, but you’ll have to pay for that—or you can use our platform for free.” As a result, for the majority of languages in the world, 80 or 90% of all the content in that exists in those languages is on Facebook.10

That this explosion of connectivity presented dangers as well as freedoms is immediately clear to civil society orgs in Myanmar, for two main reasons: The first is the state of comparative innocence with which the vast majority of Burmese people approach the internet. The second is that the political situation in Myanmar is a powderkeg at best.

There’s a third thing, though most people don’t know it yet, which is that Meta’s decision-making about Myanmar reflects no willingness to adjust for the first two. To get to that, we need to start at the beginning.

The blogger and the monk

A tiny canned history of modern Myanmar might go like this: In a series of East-India-Company–entangled conflicts, the British Empire took control of Myanmar, then called Burma. From the beginning of the wars in 1824 to 1948, Britain ruled Burma, with a big rupture during WWII when Japan invaded Burma.

After the war, the Burmese government the British left behind was too weak to withstand the combination of vigorous civil conflict with ethnic minorities on the frontiers and a 1962 coup by military leaders.

Beginning in 1962, Burma—renamed Myanmar in English by the ruling junta, but the two names come from the same root—is under incredibly tight military rule. Beginning in 2011, the junta relaxes their grip, and Myanmar begins a precarious transition to a more democratic form of government. Note: All through this entire period, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, is also waging a 70-year civil war with armed insurgencies associated with several different ethnic minorities.

Starting the year after Myanmar’s first quasi-democratic general election in 2010, the Burmese government begins granting mass amnesties to the country’s many political prisoners. Hundreds of people—journalists, activists, artists, religious leaders, and many more—are released over the next few years.

In the mass amnesty granted in January of 2012, two of the many prisoners released will go on to found organizations that play major and opposing roles in escalating crises of communal and military violence that Myanmar’s entry to the internet will fuel.

One is Nay Phone Latt, an early blogger and digital rights activist, who was jailed in 2008, basically for blogging about the 2007 Saffron Revolution demonstrations. Nay Phone Latt will go on to co-found MIDO, an organization dedicated to helping Myanmar’s ordinary citizens reap the benefits of the newly available internet. Over the next several years, MIDO will come up repeatedly in the intense struggle against online hate campaigns, especially on Facebook.11

The second is Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk jailed in 2003 for sermons inciting violence against Myanmar’s Muslim communities.12 Wirathu will go on to digitize Myanmar’s hardline extremist Buddhist movement, which will play a major role in the coming waves of anti-Muslim violence—also especially on Facebook.

In 2013, Faine Greenwood goes back to Myanmar to write about the country’s first Internet Freedom Forum, a gathering dedicated to helping Myanmar’s people take advantage of the new, liberated Internet.” Faine writes about the heady vibes:

Nay Phone Latt spoke at the conference, and so did a number of the other brilliant young Burmese tech enthusiasts I’d met before. The mood was still buoyantly optimistic as we circulated from one Post-It note-filled brainstorming session to the next, as we drank tea, discussed Internet freedom regulations and online privacy.

And yet, I could detect a slight edge in the air, a certain trepidation that had grown, mutated into new forms, in the few months since I’d been away […] During the conference, we talked about how hateful talk about the Rohingya was starting to pop up on Facebook, about how it was casting an ominous shadow over the good things about helping more people get online.13

The edge in the air and the ominous shadow aren’t just vague feelings—they’re connected to a surge in communal violence the same year of that critical mass amnesty, and to a parallel rise in online hate speech.

MIDO co-founder and program director Htaike Htaike Aung spoke on the online dynamics she and her colleagues encountered in the early days:

Unlike in countries where people gradually got used to the Internet and learnt how to find good content, thus learning what is bad content, for Myanmar this hype went straight up and people did not have the time to reflect on what the Internet is actually about. This perception can be summarized in the phrase: Okay, if it’s on the Internet it must be right”. This really is dangerous, particularly if there are people who are using the Internet for the wrong agenda and propaganda.14

In 2014, Nay Phone Latt explains what he’s seeing and why he’s worried about it:

When we advocate for free speech, reducing hate speech is included.… Speech calling for hitting or killing someone is hate speech, and can spread hate among people and is a risk for society… It is the wrong use of freedom of speech. I am worried about that because it is not only spreading on social media but also by some writers and [Buddhist] monks who are spreading hate speech publicly. […]

If people hate each other, a place will not be safe to live. I worry about that most for our society. In some places, although they are not fighting, hate exists within their heart because they have poured poison into their heart for a long time [through hate speech]. It can explode in anytime.15

So what were Htaike Htaike Aung and Nay Phone Latt and their colleagues seeing that made them so worried? Here are some Facebook comments from all the way back in 2011, sparked by the BBCs audacity in…referring to Rohingya people as a ethnic group that exists in Myanmar at all. The BBCs offending infographic had been up for a year before the BBCs Burmese Facebook page was flooded with comments:

Kick out all Muslim Kalar [Rohingyas, South Asians/Indians] from Burma. If this doesn’t work, then kill them to death. It’s time for Arakan to unite with each other.

Don’t assume that I won’t sharpen my knife. I am ready to make it sharp for the sake of protecting our nation, religion and races against those Bengali cheaters.

F@#$-ing Kalar, we will slap your face with shoes and cut your heads. Don’t criticize the god with little of what you know. We will set you on fire to death and turn the mosques into wholesales/retail pork markets…16

The New Mandala article about the controversy includes memes mocking BBC journalist Anna Jones using vintage 4chan trollface visuals, if that helps situate things for you.

So this is the landscape already in place before Nay Phone Latt was released from prison in 2012. And things don’t get any better as Facebook/internet adoption spikes.

We know now that behind the scenes, Burmese activists and organizations—and concerned westerners—spent this period desperately trying to get Facebook to act on the rapidly rising surge of anti-Rohingya hate speech. But neither those efforts nor public educational/digital literacy campaigns can keep up with what’s happening online.

The Rohingya

I need to make a brief detour, about the Rohingya. Here’s Médicins Sans Frontières, from their reference page about the Rohingya refugee crisis:

The Rohingya are a stateless ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, mostly in the country’s north, in Rakhine state. However, Myanmar authorities contest this; they claim the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants who came to Myanmar in the 20th century.

Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya are denied citizenship under Myanmar law. 17

It’s hard to overstate how contested those basic facts are within Myanmar itself, where successive governments have rejected any recognition of Rohingya existence, let alone legitimacy, referring to them instead as illegal Bengali” immigrants.18 (The Rohingya Culture Center in Chicago has published a concise timeline of Rohingya history, and it makes a good, quick orientation.19)

Going deeper, things get immediately, bogglingly complicated. My background is inadequate to the task of explaining the entangled ethnic, religious, and political histories of Myanmar in even just Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State, where the Rohingya crisis takes place. What you need to know to understand this series is mostly just that Rohingya people do in fact exist and have long lived under crushing restrictions. Also that Myanmar’s Buddhist political mainstream has long been concerned with racial purity and security. And openly so: the official motto of the Ministry of Immigration and Population is: The earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will.”20

The rumors and the killings (2012)

Content warning: Violence against men, women, and children.

On the 28th of May, 2012, a Buddhist Rakhine woman called Ma Thida Htwe is killed in a village in Rakhine State. The next day, a newspaper reports that she was raped and murdered by kalars” and calls the killing the worst homicide case in Myanmar.” Almost immediately, graphic photos of her body begin circulating online. 21

The findings of UN Mission note that although Ma Thida Htwe was clearly murdered, both the rape allegation and ethnic origin of the suspected culprits remain in doubt, and that, In the following days and weeks, it was mainly the rape allegation, more than the murder, which was used to incite violence and hatred against the Rohingya.”22

For the people who’ve been working to whip up anti-Rohingya hatred and violence, the crime against Ma Thida Htwe is a perfect opportunity—and they use it, immediately, to suggest that it’s merely the leading edge of a coming wave of attacks by Rohingya terrorists. Four days after Ma Thida Htwe’s death, on June 1st, Zaw Htay, the spokesman of the President of Myanmar, posts a statement on Facebook warning that Rohingya terrorists” are crossing the border into Myanmar with weapons.” He goes on:

We don’t want to hear any humanitarian or human rights excuses. We don’t want to hear your moral superiority, or so-called peace and loving kindness.… Our ethnic people are in constant fear in their own land. I feel very bitter about this. This is our country. This is our land.23

On June 3rd, five days after the Rakhine woman’s murder, a nationalist Buddhist group hands out leaflets in a village in southern Rakhine State stating that Muslims are assaulting Buddhist women. A bus carrying ten Rohingya men attempts to pass through the village that same day, and the villagers haul the men out, beat them to death, and destroy the bus. A few days later, Rohingya people in a nearby town riot, killing Buddhist villagers and burning homes. 24

In an article published on the academic regional analysis site New Mandala only seven days after the Rohingya men are killed in Rakhine State, Burmese PhD candidate Sai Latt writes:

What actually triggered public anger? It may have been racial profiling by the ethnic Arakan news agency, Narinjara… When the rape incident took place, the agency published news identifying the accused with their Islamic faith. In its Burmese language news, the incident was presented as if Muslims [read aliens] were threatening local people, and now they have raped and brutally killed a woman. The words—Muslims, Kalar, Islam—were repeatedly used in its news reports. The news spread and people started talking about it in terms of Kalar and Lu Myo Char [i.e. different race/people or alien] insulting our woman”.

Interestingly, Naranjara and Facebook users started talking about the accused rapists as Kalars even when the backgrounds of the accused were still unclear.25

In the wave of military and communal violence that follows, members of both Rakhine (the dominant Buddhist ethnicity in Rakhine State) and Rohingya communities commit murder and arson, but the brunt of the attacks falls on the Rohingya. The UN Mission’s findings describe house-burning, looting, extrajudicial and indiscriminate killings, including of women, children and elderly people,” and the mass arbitrary arrests” and torture of Rohingya people by soldiers and police. More than 100,000 people, most of them Rohinyga, are forced from their homes. 26

The next wave of violence comes in October and shows evidence of coordinated planning. According to Human Rights Watch, the fall attacks were organized, incited, and committed by local Arakanese political party operatives, the Buddhist monkhood, and ordinary Arakanese, at times directly supported by state security forces.” The attacks included mass killings of Rohingya men, women, and children, whose villages and homes were burned to the ground, sometimes in simultaneous attacks across geographically distant communities.

In the worst attack that October, police and soldiers in Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, preemptively confiscate sticks and other rudimentary weapons from Rohingya villagers, then stand by and watch while a Rakhine mob murders at least 70 Rohingya people over the course of a single day.

Human Rights Watch reports that 28 children are hacked to death in the attack, including 13 children under the age of 5.27

Every spark is more likely to turn into a fire

According to many of Amnesty International’s interviews with Rohingya refugees, the 2012 episodes of communal violence mark the turning point of Myanmar’s slide into intense anti-Rohingya rhetoric, persecution, and, ultimately, genocide. Mohamed Ayas, a Rohingya schoolteacher and refugee, puts it this way:

We used to live together peacefully alongside the other ethnic groups in Myanmar. Their intentions were good to the Rohingya, but the government was against us. The public used to follow their religious leaders, so when the religious leaders and government started spreading hate speech on Facebook, the minds of the people changed.28

In a short 2013 documentary, journalist and filmmaker Aela Callan interviews Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based political analyst with decades of experience in the country and (now, at least) advisor to The International Crisis Group.

Horsey’s take on the situation in Myanmar accords with the Amnesty interviews:

We’ve seen violence in previous decades by Buddhist populations against Muslim populations, but what’s new is that this information is readily available and transmissible. People are using Facebook and mobile phones, and so you get a much greater resonation every time there’s an issue. Every time there’s a spark, it’s much more likely to turn into a fire.29

In the months between the June and October waves of violence in Myanmar, dehumanizing and violence-inciting anti-Rohingya messages continue to circulate on Burmese-language Facebook. Western observers who fly in to conduct investigations emphasize town-hall meetings and pamphlets spreading hateful and violent rhetoric, but—while noting that it was also surging online—write off the internet as a major influence on the events because internet access remains unusual in rural Rakhine State.30

The very early and very strong concerns of Burmese observers and activists I’ve cited above—Htaike Htaike Aung, Nay Phone Latt, and Sai Latt—about hate speech on Facebook specifically suggest to me that it’s possible that western observers may have underestimated the role of secondhand transmission of internet-circulated ideas, including printed copies of internet propaganda, which are cited as a vector in an interview with another MIDO co-founder, Phyu Phyu Thi. (This exact dynamic—the printed internet—shows up in Sheera Frenkel’s 2016 BuzzFeed News article, which cites print magazines called Facebook and The Internet.”)31

In any case, online and off, hardline Buddhist monks, members of the government, and what appear to be ordinary people are all echoing a few distinct ideas: They claim that the Rohingya are not a real ethnic group, but illegal Bengali” immigrants; subhuman animals who outbreed” Buddhists; indistinguishable from terrorists; an immediate danger to the sexual purity and safety of Buddhist women and to Buddhist Myanmar as a whole. 32

Sai Latt writes in June 2012 that the anti-Rohingya hate campaign is a public and transnational movement orchestrated openly on social media websites,” which includes thousands of people from the Burmese diaspora:

The campaign is so severe that such comments and postings have been littered on thousands of Facebook walls and pages. Thousands of Burmese-speaking Facebook users are exposed to them every single day. Many Facebook groups such as Kalar Beheading Gang” appeared one after another. While it is possible to report abuse to Facebook, there were few Burmese Muslim Facebook users who would report to Facebook. Even when they did successfully, new groups keep appearing frequently.

That Facebook Page, Kalar Beheading Gang,” shows up in the international press as well. It features an illustration of a grim reaper with an Islamic symbol on its robe on a blood-spattered background,” and a stream of graphic photos presented as evidence of Rohingya atrocities. By the time the Hindustan Times article goes to press on June 14, 2012, the Page already has more than 500 likes.33

When Sai Latt says that what he’s seeing on Facebook is an orchestrated movement, he’s right. Remember Wirathu, the Buddhist monk released in the same amnesty as MIDOs Nay Phone Latt? Soon after his release from prison, he’s one of the people doing the orchestrating.

A faster way to spread the messages”

We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town.… In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.” —Wirathu, 2013 34

Ashin Wirathu is very, very good at Facebook. He spoke with BuzzFeed News about his history on the platform:

[Wirathu’s] first account was small, he said, and almost immediately deleted by Facebook moderators who wrote that it violated their community standards. The second had 5,000 friends and grew so quickly he could no longer accept new requests. So he started a new page and hired two full-time employees who now update the site hourly.

I have a Facebook account with 190,000 followers and a news Facebook page. The internet and Facebook are very useful and important to spread my messages,” he said.

On the dozens of Facebook pages he runs out of a dedicated office, Wirathu has called for the boycott of Muslim businesses, and for Muslims to be expelled from Myanmar.35

In a 2013 video interview with the Global Post, Wirathu speaks placidly about the possibility of interfaith problem-solving and multi-ethnic peace—and then, with no transition or change of tone, about Muslims devouring the Burmese people, destroying Buddhist and Buddhist order, forcefully taking action to establish Myanmar as an Islamic country, and forcefully implementing them.” To these absolute fantasies—Muslims make up maybe five percent of Myanmar’s population at this time—Wirathu adds that, Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.”36

In 2013, Time puts Wirathu on the cover of its international editions as The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Time reporter Hannah Beech quotes him in the cover story explaining that 90% of Muslims in Myanmar are radical bad people,” and that Barack Obama is tainted by black Muslim blood.“ 37

Cover of Time's international editions for July 1, 2013. The photo shows Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese man wearing the crimson robe of a Buddhist monk. His head is shaved and his expression is thoughtful. The cover text reads The Face of Buddhist Terror, in progressively large type, and underneath, How militant monks are fueling anti-Muslim violence in Asia, by Hannah Beech.

Photo by Adam Dean/Panos

It would be hard to overstate Wirathu’s influence in Myanmar during the years leading up to the beginning of the Rohingya genocide. One NGO writes that, It is noteworthy that almost every major outbreak of communal violence since October 2012 in Rakhine state has been preceded by a 969-sponsored preaching tour in the area, usually by [Wirathu] himself.”38 In fact, the same thing is true of the 2012 violence, though from a little further away: Wirathu led a rally in Mandalay in September of 2012 in support of a proposal by then-President Thein Sein to deport the Rohingya en masse. The worst of the violence in Rakhine State took place the very next month.39

I think it’s useful to note that the 969/Ma Bha Tha movement Wirathu is associated with is also a force for practical and immediate good among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority—they run or support lots of Buddhist religious education for children, legal aid, donation drives, and relief campaigns. And these things, along with the high esteem in which monks are generally held in Myanmar, makes them seem exceptionally credible.40

Wirathu himself is beloved not only for his incendiary sermons that defend” Buddhism by demonizing Muslims, but also for his direct involvement in community support. If the project of supporting and defending Buddhism is extended to eliminating the Rohingya, maybe those two kinds of action blur. In Callan’s documentary, Wirathu holds office hours to help ordinary community members solve problems and disputes. His attention flicks constantly between the petitioners kneeling in front of him and the smartphone cradled in his hand.

A few years later, Wirathu—by then running a Facebook empire with nearly 200,000 followers, dozens of Pages, and a full-time staff—sums up the situation: If the internet had not come to [Myanmar], not many people would know my opinion and messages like now,” Wirathu told BuzzFeed News, adding that he had always written books and delivered sermons but that the internet is a faster way to spread the messages.” 41

A quick aside

I don’t want to spend much time on my process, but I do want to make a note about the provenance of a document that would otherwise have unclear sourcing.

Several accounts of Meta’s role in Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya include partial lists of the many warnings people on the ground in Burma—and concerned international human-rights watchers—delivered to Meta executives between 2012 and 2018. Taking on the implications of that litany of warnings and missed chances is what first gave me the first taste of the sinking dread that has characterized my experience of this project.

Because of citations in Amnesty International’s big Meta/Myanmar report, I knew there was a briefing deck” floating around somewhere that had more details, but the closest reference I could find led to a dead URL that didn’t have, and emailing around didn’t turn anything up.

Eventually, I found a version of it on a French timeline-making site in the form of a heavily annotated timeline, and cross-referenced that version with tweets from Htaike Htaike Aung and Victoire Rio, the women credited in the Amnesty report with making the deck. The URL they link to in the tweets is the dead one, but the preview image in their tweets is an exact match for the timeline I found. I cite this timeline a lot below.

Edited Oct. 16 2023 to add: The original material is now back online in one form at the Myanmar Internet Project website, and someone affiliated with the project also passed on a PDF form with attached case studies, which I’ve archived via Document Cloud: Facebook and the Rohingya Crisis.”

The warnings

The timeline showing Burmese civil-society and digital-rights leaders' attempts to warn Meta about what it was enabling in Myanmar.

Screenshot of the timeline discussed above.

All the way back in November of 2012, Htaike Htaike Aung, MIDOs program director, speaks with Meta’s Director of Global Public Policy and Policy Director for Europe about the proliferation of hate speech on Facebook at a roundtable in Azerbaijan. Eleven months later, in October 2013, Htaike Htaike Aung brings up her concerns again in the context of rising inter-communal tensions” at a roundtable discussion in Indonesia attended by three Meta policy executives including the Director of Global Public Policy.42

At the same time, activists and researchers from MIDO and Yangon-based tech-accelerator Phandeeyar followed up over email to ask for ways to get Facebook to review problematic content and address emergency escalations.” Facebook didn’t respond. MIDO and Phandeeyar staff start doing targeted research on hate speech.”43

In November of 2013, Aela Callan (whose documentary work I’ve cited) meets with Facebook’s VP of Communications and Public Policy, Eliot Schrage, to warn about anti-Rohingya hate speech—and the fake accounts promoting it—on Facebook.44 After her visit, Meta puts Callan in touch with—the global initiative that would eventually cement Facebook’s hegemony in Myanmar, among other places—and with Facebook’s bullying-focused Compassion Team,” but not with anyone inside Facebook who could actually help.45

In March 2014, four months before deadly, Facebook-juiced riots break out in Mandalay, Htaike Htaike Aung travels to Menlo Park with Aela Callan after RightsCon Silicon Valley. The two women met with members of Meta’s Compassion Team to try once again to get Facebook to pay attention to the threat its service poses in Myanmar. 46

In the same month, Susan Benesch, head of the Dangerous Speech Project, coordinates a briefing call for Meta, attended by half a dozen Meta employees, including Arturo Bejar, one of Facebook’s heads of engineering.

On the call, Matt Schissler, a Myanmar-based human-rights specialist, delivers a grim assessment describing dehumanizing messages, faked photos, and misinformation spreading on Facebook. In An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, their 2021 book about Facebook’s dysfunction, reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang describe Schissler’s presentation:

Toward the end of the meeting, Schissler gave a stark recounting of how Facebook was hosting dangerous Islamophobia. He detailed the dehumanizing and disturbing language people were using in posts and the doctored photos and misinformation being spread widely.47

Reuters notes that one of the examples Schissler gives Meta was a Burmese Facebook Page called, We will genocide all of the Muslims and feed them to the dogs.” 48

None of this seems to get through to the Meta employees on the line, who are interested in…cyberbullying. Frenkel and Kang write that the Meta employees on the call believed that the same set of tools they used to stop a high school senior from intimidating an incoming freshman could be used to stop Buddhist monks in Myanmar.”49

Aela Callan later tells Wired that hate speech seemed to be a low priority” for Facebook, and that the situation in Myanmar, was seen as a connectivity opportunity rather than a big pressing problem.”50

Then comes Mandalay.

Facebook said nothing”

I don’t have space to tell the whole story of the 2014 Mandalay violence here—Timothy McLaughlin’s Wired article is good on it—but it has all the elements civil society watchdogs have been worried about: Two innocent Muslim men are falsely accused of raping a Buddhist woman, sensationalist news coverage explodes, and Ashin Wirathu exploits the story to further his cause. Riots break out, and all kinds of wild shit starts circulating on Facebook.

This is exactly the kind of situation Htaike Htaike Aung, Callan, Schissler, and others had been warning Meta could happen—but when it actually arrives, no one at Meta picks up the phone.

As the violence in Mandalay worsens, the head of Deloitte in Myanmar gets an urgent call. Zaw Htay, the official spokesman of Myanmar’s president, needs help reaching Meta. The Deloitte executive works into the night trying to get someone to respond, but never gets through. On the third day of rioting, the government gets tired of waiting and blocks access to Facebook in Mandalay. The block works—the riots died down. And the Deloitte guy’s inbox suddenly fills with emails from Meta staffers wanting to know why Facebook has been blocked.51

The government wasn’t the only group trying to get through. A few months before, a handful of Facebook employees—including members of policy, legal, and comms teams—had formed a private Facebook group, to allow some of the civil-society experts from Myanmar to flag problems to Facebook staff directly.

With false reports and calls to violence beginning to spread on Facebook in Mandalay, Burmese activists and westerners in the private group try to alert Facebook. They get no response, even after the violence turns deadly. A member of the group later tells Frenkel and Kang:

When it came to answering our messages about the riots, Facebook said nothing. When it came to the internet being shut down, and people losing Facebook, suddenly, they are returning messages right away. It showed where their priorities are.52

A couple of weeks after the violence in Mandalay in 2014, Facebook’s Director of Policy for the Asia-Pacific region, Mia Garlick, travels to Myanmar for the first time. In a panel discussion, Garlick discusses Meta’s policies and promises to…speed up the translation of Facebook’s Community Standards (its basic content rules) into Burmese. That single piece of translation work—Facebook’s main offering in response to internationally significant ethnic violence about which the company has been warned for two years—takes Meta fourteen months to accomplish and relies, in the end, on the Phandeeyar folks in the private Facebook group.53

Also in 2014, Meta agrees to localize their reporting tool for hate speech and other objectionable content. Meta employees work with MIDO and other Burmese civil-society people to translate and fine-tune the tool, and they launch it by the end of 2014.

There’s just one problem: As the Burmese civil society people in the private Facebook group finally learn, Facebook has a single Burmese-speaking moderator—a contractor based in Dublin—to review everything that comes in. The Burmese-language reporting tool is, as Htaike Htaike Aung and Victoire Rio put it in their timeline, a road to nowhere.”54

Yet more warnings

Heading into 2015, the warnings keep coming:

February 2015: Susan Benesch, founder and director of the Dangerous Speech Project at the Berkman Klein Center (that’s the Berkman Center as was, for my fellow olds) gives a presentation called The Dangerous Side of Language” during Compassion Day at Facebook. According to this legal filing for a class-action suit against Meta on behalf of the Rohingya, the presentation explains how anti-Rohingya speech is being disseminated by Facebook.”55

March 2015: Matt Schissler travels to Menlo Park to meet with Facebook employees in person. Reuters reports that he gave a talk at Facebook’s California headquarters about new media, particularly Facebook, and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. More than a dozen Facebook employees attended, he said.” Frenkel and Kang describe his presentation as documenting the seriousness of what was happening in Myanmar: hate speech on Facebook was leading to real-world violence in the country, and it was getting people killed.”56

After his meeting at Meta, Schissler has lunch with a few Meta employees, and one of them asked Schissler if he thought Facebook could contribute to a genocide in Myanmar, to which Schissler responded, Absolutely.” Afterwards, Schissler tells Frenkel and Kang, one Facebook employee loudly remarks, He can’t be serious. That’s just not possible.”57

May 2015: Another expert comes to Menlo Park to warn Facebook about the dangerous dynamics it was feeding in Myanmar: David Madden, founder of Phandeeyar, the technology accelerator in Myanmar. In an interview with Amnesty International, Madden reported that those of us who were working on these issues in Myanmar had a sense that people in Facebook didn’t appreciate the nature of the political situation in the country.”58

In his meeting with Meta, Madden discusses specific examples of dangerous content and drew a direct analogy between radio news in Rwanda and Meta’s role in Myanmar, meaning it would be the platform through which hate speech was spread and incitements to violence were made.”59

September 2015: Mia Garlick, Facebook’s Director of Public Policy, Asia-Pacific, comes to Myanmar to finally launch Facebook’s Burmese-language Community Standards. Phandeeyar puts together a group of 15+ civil-society leaders from across Myanmar” to brief Garlick on specific incidents and actors.”60

In an interview with Amnesty International, Victoire Rio reports that several of these leaders specifically tell Garlick that Facebook’s Community Standards aren’t being enforced in Myanmar.61

Which, of course they aren’t: Reuters reports that in 2015, Facebook employed a total of two (2) Burmese-speaking moderators, expanding to four (4) by the year’s end.62

To sum up a little bit, by the end of 2015, Meta knew—as much as any organization can be said to know—that both international civil society experts and the government of Myanmar believe Facebook had a significant role in the 2014 Mandalay riots.

And they’d been warned, over and over, that multiple dedicated civil-society and human-rights organizations believed that Facebook was worsening ethnic conflict.

They’d been shown example after example of dehumanizing posts and comments calling for mass murder, even explicitly calling for genocide. And David Madden had told Meta staff to their faces that Facebook might well play the role in Myanmar that radio played in Rwanda. Nothing was subtle.

After all that, Meta decided not to dramatically scale up moderation capacity, to permanently ban the known worst actors, or to make fundamental product-design changes to reliably deviralize posts inciting hatred and violence.

Instead, in 2016, it was time to get way more people in Myanmar onto Facebook.

That’s next, in Part II: The Crisis.

  1. Weaponizing Social Media: The Rohingya Crisis, CBS News, February 26, 2018 (YouTube lists the date when the documentary was uploaded, not when it was initially broadcast). Also available at the CBS News site, where you will have to watch multiple ads for Pfizer. Content warning: First-person accounts of atrocities.↩︎

  2. U.N. Investigators Cite Facebook Role in Myanmar Crisis,” Reuters, March 12, 2018.↩︎

  3. Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 1, Faine Greenwood, August 8, 2023.↩︎

  4. Myanmar Cuts the Price of a SIM Card by 99%,” Sam Petulla, Quartz, April 3, 2013.↩︎

  5. Digital 2011: Myanmar,” Simon Kemp, Datareportal, December 28, 2011; Digital 2017: Myanmar,” Simon Kemp, Datareportal, February 1, 2017, both cited in Amnesty International’s report, The Social Atrocity,” cited elsewhere.↩︎

  6. The Unprecedented Explosion of Smartphones in Myanmar,” Philip Heijmans with assistance from Jason Clenfield, Grace Huang, Masumi Suga, and Mai Ngoc Chau, Bloomberg, July 31, 2012.↩︎

  7. The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar,” Craig Mod, The Atlantic, January 21, 2016.↩︎

  8. The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar,” Craig Mod, The Atlantic, January 21, 2016.↩︎

  9. Telenor Brings Zero-Rated Wikipedia and Facebook Access to Myanmar,” LIRNEasia, November 3, 2014.↩︎

  10. Frances Haugen DW News Interview,” DW Global Media Forum, November 10, 2021 (Haugen’s sentence begins at about 7:39 in the video).↩︎

  11. Imprisoned Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt to receive top PEN honor,” PEN America, April 14, 2010; I Am Really Worried About Our Country’s Future’,” Jessica Mudditt, Mizzima, September 21, 2014 (archived at Burma Link).↩︎

  12. It Only Takes One Terrorist’: The Buddhist Monk Who Reviles Myanmar’s Muslims,” Marella Oppenheim, The Guardian, May 12, 2017.↩︎

  13. Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 1,” Faine Greenwood, August 8, 2023.↩︎

  14. If It’s on the Internet It Must Be Right’: An Interview With Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation on the Use of the Internet and Social Media in Myanmar,” Rainer Einzenberger, Advances in Southeast Asian Studies (ASEAS), formerly the Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, December 30, 2016.↩︎

  15. Hate Speech Pours Poison Into the Heart’,” San Yamin Aung, The Irrawaddy, April 9, 2014.↩︎

  16. BBC under fire on Rohingyas,” Sai Latt, New Mandala, November 3, 2011.↩︎

  17. The Rohingya: Persecuted Across Time and Place,” Médecins Sans Frontières, resource undated.↩︎

  18. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 460 — the report landing page includes summaries, metadata, and infographics. Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  19. History of the Rohingya,” Rohingya Culture Center, resource undated.↩︎

  20. An Open Prison without End’: Myanmar’s Mass Detention of Rohingya in Rakhine State,” Human Rights Watch, October 8, 2020↩︎

  21. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 704. Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  22. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 625. Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  23. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 705. Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  24. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 627. The New Light of Myanmar article cited in the findings is archived at Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  25. Intolerance, Islam and the Internet in Burma,” Sai Latt, New Mandala, June 10, 2012↩︎

  26. Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018, paragraph 628. Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  27. All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State,” Human Rights Watch, April 2013 (PDF version). Content warnings apply throughout.↩︎

  28. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  29. Myanmar: Freedom from Hate, Aela Callan, Al Jazeera English, September 5, 2013.↩︎

  30. Symposium on Myanmar and International Indifference: The Rohingya Genocide — Warning Signs, International Inaction, and Missteps,” Matthew Smith, OpinioJuris, August 29, 2022; All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State,” Human Rights Watch, April 2013 (PDF version); Myanmar Conflict Alert: Preventing Communal Bloodshed and Building Better Relations,” International Crisis Group, June 12 2012.↩︎

  31. If It’s on the Internet It Must Be Right’: An Interview With Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation on the Use of the Internet and Social Media in Myanmar,” Rainer Einzenberger, Advances in Southeast Asian Studies (ASEAS), formerly the Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, December 30, 2016; This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet,,” Sheera Frenkel, BuzzFeed News, November 20, 2016.↩︎

  32. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022; Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar,” United Nations Human Rights Council, September 17, 2018 (many paragraphs over the report).↩︎

  33. Web users vent rage over Myanmar unrest,” Hindustan Times/AFP June 14, 2012; How the Word Kalar’ is a Depressing Indictment of Myanmar Society,” Myanmar Mix, April 22, 2020.↩︎

  34. Buddhist Monk Uses Racism and Rumours to Spread Hatred in Burma,” Kate Hodal, The Guardian, April 18, 2013.↩︎

  35. This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet,,” Sheera Frenkel, BuzzFeed News, November 20, 2016.↩︎

  36. A Burmese Journey Q&A With Ashin Wirathu,” Tin Aung Kyaw, Global Post, June 2013 (archived at the Rohingya Video News YouTube channel); note: the YouTube comment section is now filled with people cheering for Wirathu’s anti-Islamic positions. (Related article about this interview, from which I draw the African carp” translation.)↩︎

  37. The Face of Buddhist Terror,” Hannah Beech, Time, July 1, 2013.↩︎

  38. Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots, Justice Trust Policy Report,” Justice Trust, March 2015 (archived at Burma Library).↩︎

  39. It Only Takes One Terrorist’: The Buddhist Monk Who Reviles Myanmar’s Muslims,” Marella Oppenheim, The Guardian, May 12, 2017.↩︎

  40. Misunderstanding Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha,” Matthew J Walton, Asia Times, June 9, 2017.↩︎

  41. This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet,” Sheera Frenkel, BuzzFeed News, November 20, 2016.↩︎

  42. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022, p 51; Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  43. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  44. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  45. Hatebook: Why Facebook Is Losing the War on Hate Speech in Myanmar,” Reuters, August 15, 2018. This piece is part of Reuters’ extraordinary, Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Rohingya genocide, Myanmar Burning, which landed two Burmese Reuters reporters in prison in Myanmar for documenting a mass killing of Rohingya people; both men were released in 2019. Content warning.; Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  46. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  47. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021—I read the ebook edition, so I have no page numbers to cite, but this comes from Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share.”↩︎

  48. Weaponizing Social Media: The Rohingya Crisis, CBS News, February 26, 2018 (YouTube lists the date when the documentary was uploaded, not when it was initially broadcast). Also available at the CBS News site, where you will have to watch multiple ads for Pfizer. Content warning: First-person accounts of atrocities.↩︎

  49. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  50. Hatebook: Why Facebook Is Losing the War on Hate Speech in Myanmar,” Reuters, August 15, 2018; How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar,” Timothy McLaughlin, Wired, July 6, 2018.↩︎

  51. How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar,” Timothy McLaughlin, Wired, July 6, 2018.↩︎

  52. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  53. How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar,” Timothy McLaughlin, Wired, July 6, 2018; An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  54. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022; How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar,” Timothy McLaughlin, Wired, July 6, 2018; An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  55. Class-action complaint and demand for jury trial,” filed in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of San Mateo by Rafey S. Balabanian and Richard Fields of Edelson PC and Fields PLLC, The Guardian, December 6, 2021. (I got the date from Reuters.)↩︎

  56. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  57. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, HarperCollins, July 13, 2021 (Chapter Nine: Think Before You Share”).↩︎

  58. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  59. The Facebook Dilemma, Frontline, October, 2018; the full interview with David Madden is available as well.↩︎

  60. Rohingya and Facebook,” Htaike Htaike Aung, Victoire Rio, possibly others, August 2022.↩︎

  61. The Social Atrocity: Meta and the Right to Remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, September 29, 2022.↩︎

  62. Hatebook: Why Facebook Is Losing the War on Hate Speech in Myanmar,” Reuters, August 15, 2018.↩︎

28 September 2023

Meta Meta

I wrote so many posts that that my posts needed a post. Sorry about that.

The series this note accompanies is a work of synthesis, in which I attempt to collect up the hundreds of pieces of the overall story of Meta’s actions (and inactions) in Myanmar before and after the peak of the genocide of the Rohingya people in 2016 and 2017, and make them intelligible to a readership of English-speaking people who want to make or use an internet that doesn’t replicate these dynamics.

If you spot typos or inaccuracies, I’m reachable at erin at and appreciate all bug reports. Someday I may even fix up the font loading on this website.

Limitations (mine)

I’m the furthest thing from a scholar of Burmese history or politics, and although my background has included working with atrocity materials in other contexts, I’m also not a genocide scholar. My aim with this series is to give mostly-western makers and users of social technology a sense of one US-based technology company’s role in what happened to just one group of people in just one place over a very limited time range. As enormously long as this series is, I’ve left out vastly more than I’ve put in, especially about the complexities of both colonial and post-colonial violence and repression in Myanmar.

If you want to get a sense of Myanmar’s history both generally and as it relates to oppression of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, I really like Carlos Sardiña Galache’s The Burmese Labyrinth (Verso, 2020) and Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma (WW Norton, 2019).

Content warnings

This is a series about a US technology company’s role in a genocide, so it describes the events leading up to and constituting the genocide.

I’ve tried to be really careful about what makes it into the text, and I haven’t included any graphic descriptions or images—or any images of traumatized fleeing refugees, for that matter.

Within the text of my posts, I warn readers before getting into particularly rough sections dealing with events in Myanmar. But I do say, in general terms, what happened, which was about as bad as anything can be. The sources I cite range from high-level and abstract to literal catalogs of atrocities—and even some of the regular newspaper reporting includes images that, if you look at them closely, may haunt you. If you decide to get into the source documentation and you don’t have experience working with atrocity material, you might want to keep the Tetris intervention handy.

I also quote examples of anti-Rohingya and anti-Islamic hate speech throughout the series, some of which include terms that qualify as slurs and some of which are just horrible things to say.


It’s been really hard to figure out what to call things in a story about Meta’s actions in Myanmar—or should that be Facebook’s actions in Burma?

When I talk about the platform, I say Facebook,” but when I talk about the company that runs Facebook, I say Meta,” no matter what they were called at the point in history I’m looking at. There’s a good argument to be made for just calling them Facebook all the way through.

Is it silly to talk about Meta in 2013, when the company was still called Facebook? Probably! But so are corporate rebranding exercises. Also, we do this with humans all the time, and I’m pretty committed to calling people and entities what they ask to be called.

Let this be my tiny part in making sure that the construct called Meta can’t escape responsibility for what the construct called Facebook did.

When I talk about Myanmar, I say Myanmar,” not Burma,” because that’s what the country’s government calls the country in English and what most other countries and international bodies use. There are some linguistic complexities and tangled history, and many people from Myanmar still use Burma” in English-language text. As a white American, I think using colonial-period names in my work on principle would be a little weird, so I’m erring on the side of use the name the entity requests.”

My own government refuses to write Myanmar” in official documents because the Burmese government that switched from using Burma” to Myanmar” as the official English name was a military government that took control of the country in a coup in 1962. Given the United States’ history of supporting both military governments and coups elsewhere in the world, I’m…not going to say anything else about that.

Things get trickier, though, in referring to people from Myanmar, and to the most commonly spoken language. Technically, Myanma” is the official term for people who live in Myanmar, inclusive of both the Bamar ethnic majority and the officially recognized ethnic minorities, but in all my reading for this series, I encountered that exact usage about three times, total. Similarly, the most commonly spoken language in Myanmar is officially the Myanmar language,” but in practice, the usage is vanishingly rare, so I use Burmese” in both cases.

More place and ethnicity names: The city formerly known as Rangoon is now Yangon. Arakan State and the Arakan ethnicity are now Rakhine State and the Rahkine ethnicity, but my sources are all over the place, so some quoted material still uses the old terms.

Personal names: Burmese-language personal names can be tricky for western readers—there are multiple formulations of many names, and a person’s name isn’t divided into given name and surname/family name. I’ve given the most common formulation of Burmese people’s names, and provide them in full each time they come up, because shortening them to a faux-surname would be weird.

The Ashin” in Ashin Wirathu” is an honorific used for monks and certain other honored figures, so I’ve dropped it after the first reference. In quotations and cited sources, you’ll also see U Wirathu”‚ and U” here is an honorific use of uncle.” (Relatedly, the Daw” in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” is the auntie” honorific.)

Sources and citations

I’ve cited sources very heavily in this series because I want to provide a highly explorable web of information, and because I think the subject demands attention to sourcing. And because all of this stuff came from other people and they deserve credit. I’ve done a lot of plain old hyperlinking as well, but the footnotes in each post provide the most complete set of references. I use a roughly Chicago-style citation method, but with titles first instead of authors because a lot of my references lack designated authors and also it’s my website and I can do whatever I want.

I quote from a lot of US- and UK-based media sources. When I do, I lean on in-depth investigative reporting rather than more general explainery coverage. I also rely heavily on the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and on reporting and research from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Médicins Sans Frontières.

A sidenote: One of the things I did to get up to speed for this series was watch a lot of video, including interviews with physically scarred Rohingya women and children in refugee camps, as well as footage of incidents of violence in Rahkine State. I also read detailed reports on specific incidents in Myanmar, because I wanted to make sure that I understood the nature of the evidence before making claims. I’m not going to discuss any of that except to say that what I saw and read provided enough evidence for me to feel very secure citing the sources I’ve cited.

Especially in the third and fourth posts in this series, I use a lot of material from internal Meta documents disclosed by whistleblowers. Meta responds to all whistleblower disclosures with blanket denials, and sometimes frankly absurd statements meant to act, I think, as radar chaff. Having read a bunch of these responses, I don’t think they actually add anything at all to the conversation, so I rarely quote from them, but I do link to some in footnotes.

Also, I’ve included views from as many Burmese civil-society and digital-rights people as I could cram in, along with first-hand perspectives from several western journalists and tech people who spent time in Myanmar. I’ve tried to rely on local, Burmese-speaking sources for ground truths about the interaction of the internet with communal and state violence, and include western perspectives for backup and a sense of the vibes.

The Rohingya

I deal with pieces of the history of the Rohingya at various points throughout the series, so here I will confine myself to terminology and the basic facts of Rohingya existence.

The most deeply researched accounts I’ve read about the history of the Rohingya in Rakhine State agree that there have been population flows across what is now the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh for centuries, and that the pre-2016 Rohingya population in Rakhine has roots reflecting both longstanding local populations and periodic inflows from what is now Bangladesh. These inflows included people originally” from what is now Rakhine State in Myanmar, who’d been forced to migrate north and later returned, as well as people originally” from the area now known as Bangladesh.

Claims that the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants” were widely accepted in Myanmar before the 2021 coup, but they’re best understood as political maneuvering intended to demonize an ethnic group, not statements of fact.

While we’re on the subject, it’s my opinion that borders are not a coherent way of describing ancestry and belonging, or of parceling out the obligation to treat people like humans.


Friday, September 29: Fixed some typos in this post, expanded content warnings in this post and Part I to explicitly include hate speech and ethnic slurs, and refined the language in the section in this post that deals with using Burma” vs. “Myanmar.” I’ve also reorganized some of the reading recommendations in this post and tried to make explicit some of the many things that I’m necessarily leaving out. Thank you to readers for raising flags about these issues.

Saturday, September 30: Posted Part II, fixed a couple of typos throughout and one inexplicable word substitution in Part II (a random insert of Malaysian,” which shouldn’t be in the post at all). Thank you to everyone who reported!

Friday, October 6: Posted Part III. Fixed several typos in the other two parts and changed some ambiguous phasing to clarify Arturo Bejar’s position in the Facebook org chart. Thank you to all reporters of errors! I’m sure I’ve made several more.

Friday, October 13: Posted Part IV. Fixed yet more typos.

Monday, October 16: Posted the series home and acknowledgements post. Fixed yet more typos, probably.

28 September 2023