Feature: How Much of the Social Media Reporting on the Rohingya Can we Trust?

Published September 4th, 2017 - 02:06 GMT
An Indonesian protester tears a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally in front of Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on September 2, 2017 (AFP)
An Indonesian protester tears a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally in front of Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on September 2, 2017 (AFP)

The plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minority has long preoccupied many elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The estimated 1.1 million Rohingya people who live in Rakhine province are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s laws, and have faced years of systematic discrimination and state violence.

The situation is such that in 2013 the UN described them as “the most persecuted people in the world”.

Fellow Muslims living in the Middle East have been among the most vocal about oppression facing the Rohingya, regularly speaking out against the mistreatment of their co-religionists online.

The response from the Arab world has been no different during a recent spate of violence which broke out in August.

An estimated 90,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh since the deadliest period in decades for Rakhine, Reuters reported.

However, while social media in the Arab world may be full of outrage over the alleged government brutality, how much of what is shared can we trust?

Arabic language social media is difficult to navigate at the best of times.

With information and images retweeted thousands of times across short periods, it becomes impossible to track their origins. With no source to check, it is difficult and time-consuming to verify facts.

So, false stories and pictures become hard to separate out from the truth.

As more and more of us use social media as a main source of news, this proliferation of “fake news” is a worrying phenomenon, as has often been noted in recent times. And it is not one limited to the West.

This is even more the case for the situation in Rakhine, the details of which are disputed as it is.

Let’s take a look at some of what is circulating online in the Arab world about the recent spate of violence in Myanmar.

Unattributed images

First, there are hundreds of unverified and explicit photographs, for which, almost without exception, no source is given.

Images show drowned and burned bodies, especially children. Others show soldiers beating unarmed individuals, or forcing them to lie face down on the ground.

Warning: Graphic images.

The pictures speak of the reality of the Buddhist terrorists against the Muslims in Burma.

With such potential to shock and influence public opinion, it is important to be certain that such images are what they say they are.

Recent pictures issued by agencies such as AFP, Reuters and Getty Images have depicted refugees, as well as some of the damage allegedly caused by Myanmar’s military, accused of burning Rohingya villages among other atrocities. They have not provided photographs of the violence itself.

Image: (STR/AFP) “Broken dishes can be seen in the burned out remains of a house in Myo Thu Gyi Muslim village where houses were burnt to the ground near Maungdaw town in northern Rakhine State on August 31, 2017.”

The failure of these international agencies to provide images of government brutality is the inevitable result of the chaotic security situation, and the difficulty for journalists in gaining access. Only on Friday Myanmar dropped charges against six journalists following international criticism over the apparent attempt to restrict freedom of expression.

It is in these situations that the figure of the social media “citizen journalist” can come into its own, providing pictures and information directly from the scene. But for that role to have any impact, the images and facts need to remain attached to their source to ensure their veracity.




Confusion over the facts

Away from the images, there seems to be a general confusion around the facts. One Twitter user, @ashraf8465, angrily called out brutality against “Bosnian Muslims” in Myanmar.

While it seems clear that Rohingyan civilians in large numbers are victims of the recent escalation in violence, local Buddhist and Hindu civilians have also suffered.

In fact, it was a new Rohingyan militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, that attacked government forces on August 25, sparking the crackdown, according to some accounts.

AFP reported Sunday that Islamist fighters from the Rohingya minority had attacked Buddhist and Hindu villagers in early August, with some 11,0000 becoming internally displaced.

For their part, the Rohingya militants have claimed that their August 25 attacks were in response to a government crackdown, rather than prior to it. 

The situation is complex and nuanced. None of these subtleties can be reflected in 140 characters, and most in the Middle East chose to ignore, or are unaware of, the Rohingya militants' own alleged atrocities.

'No-one is talking about it' - say hundreds of people talking about it

As for the repeated accusations that the international community and media are ignoring the violence, they perhaps hold some truth but not to the extent claimed by hundreds on social media.

@zakiasaid12 wrote Saturday: “The Myanmar army vows to continue its campaign against #Rohingya […] and decision-makers are playing the role of spectator”.

Presenter with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya, Najwa Kassem tweeted: "A million Rohingyas are threatened with death, starvation or displacement. The number appears to be small for Muslim victims in the eyes of international public opinion."

However, the international community is in fact putting pressure on Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has called on Suu Kyi to “step in”.

On Friday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation in Myanmar.

In a tweet Sunday, fellow Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, asked that Suu Kyi to “condemn this tragic and shameful treatment.”

The leaders of a number of Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia have also put pressure on Myanmar to halt the violence. Indonesia’s foreign minister met with Myanmar’s army chief on Monday to call for a end to the government crackdown.

Pakistan and Malaysia have also spoken out against escalation of the crisis. The Malaysian Prime Minister tweeted the following on Saturday.


The Maldives has severed economic ties with Myanmar over what it says is a violation of Rohingya human rights, while Kyrgyzstan has been forced to cancel an Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar because of a social media campaign.

Turkish President Erdogan has accused Myanmar of “genocide”, while Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has said violence against the Rohingya was “"besmirching the reputation" of Myanmar.

The list goes on, making it misleading to say that the world is looking away.

Meanwhile, claims that the media are not reporting the violence are also misrepresentative.

The UK’s The Guardian has dedicated 13 articles on is website to the crisis since August 25. Reuters has published 18.

The Middle East tries to make the plight of the Rohingya about itself

Another major issue with the Middle Eastern social media account of events, is the way in which they are hijacked for regional political purposes.

One tweet, from @hamads3dy, compared “Buddhist militias” to the “Shia Hashd” referring to the “Hashd al-Shaabi” or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) group of militias in Iraq. It said that both “carried out their massacres under the noses of the government forces.”

While the PMU, and Iraqi government forces, have been accused of abuses against civilians in ISIS-occupied Mosul, the post was problematic given its sectarian undertones.

Elsewhere, a hashtag “the Rohingyas thank Salman the resolute” was trending in Saudi Arabia, as Saudis bizarrely made the issue, like everything, about praising their king. Oh, and about bashing Qatar and its ally Turkey.

The remains big and the small remains small. Where are Qatar and Erdogan? #Rohingyas_thank_Salman_the_resolute

The way in which social media in the Middle East discusses things like the persecution of Rohingya, then, can be counterproductive. By circulating information and images without citation and shaping facts for political purpose, Twitter in the Arab world can become a misleading source of reporting.

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