With the rise of internet access across South and Southeast Asia, online hate speech and false rumors have become new drivers of domestic conflict in the region. Online hate speech and rumors often draw on historically-rooted social tensions, which many political elites choose to enflame rather than temper. To address the problem, governments have passed new laws expanding their power in the digital space, and technology companies are more closely monitoring online speech. But this vexing problem requires a citizen-centered approach that can address this challenge from the bottom up.
Last fall, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly criticized Muslim extremism and defended French citizens’ right to caricature the Islamic Prophet Mohammad on the grounds of freedom of expression. Five thousand miles away, in a small Bangladeshi village, a local Hindu school principal praised the French president’s condemnation of religious extremism on Facebook. A screenshot of his post was spread around his village with the false claim that he supported depictions of Prophet Mohammad. The resulting furor led to a group of Muslims vandalizing and burning several Hindu homes.
This incident is not unique in Bangladesh or across South and Southeast Asia, where online hate speech and false rumors are rising with deadly results. In response, governments are passing new laws to regulate online speech while tech companies are updating user guidelines, changing algorithms, and more aggressively moderating content. Still, the problem of hate speech and rumors is a classic “wicked problem” that defies easy solutions. Citizen-centered and civil-society-led approaches can augment or complement state and private sector approaches to reduce online hate speech and also counter attempts by states or political leaders to foment conflict online.
The Rise of Hate Speech and Online Rumors
In a region rife with longstanding social tension, the growth of internet use—often through mobile phones—has provided a new tool to inspire and coordinate hatred and conflict. In India, Hindu nationalists have targeted religious minorities and low-caste Hindu communities. Violence against Muslims, in particular, is closely linked with hate speech, which frequently demonizes Muslims as pro-Pakistani or as terrorist sympathizers. Rumors spread via Facebook and social media in early 2020 claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading COVID-19 led to an increased number of attacks—often encouraged by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) allies and officials— on Muslims across the country.
In Bangladesh over the last decade, users have intentionally engaged in online campaigns that falsely implicate religious minorities in anti-Muslim blasphemy, resulting in large and deadly attacks against Hindus and Buddhists. The earliest prominent example occurred in 2012, when the image of a burned Quran was photoshopped onto a Buddhist youth’s Facebook page and spread online. To take revenge, a mob reportedly numbering over twenty thousand—which included political leaders from major political parties—rampaged through the local Buddhist community in Cox’s Bazar, Chattogram, destroying and looting dozens of homes and temples.
Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups in Sri Lanka have exploited social media to spread Islamophobia and incite violence. The spread of rumors and hate speech on Facebook in 2018 and 2019 following the Easter bombings led to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and Negombo. This online campaign included false reports that Muslims were sterilizing Sinhalese women. The same groups instigated hate speech during the COVID-19 period around the issue of cremation of Muslim bodies.
In Burma, political parties, candidates, and their supporters espousing Buddhist extremism deployed hate speech targeting religious minorities on social media in advance of the 2020 elections. During the campaign period, Muslim candidates faced attacks and threats online, while political parties fielding Muslim candidates were targeted as “not protecting race and religion.” Disinformation against one Muslim candidate falsely indicated that he wanted Arabic to be taught in schools in Burma.
Common Dimensions of Hate Speech and Online Rumors
These incidents of online-inspired violence in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma highlight two key commonalities of online hate speech in the region. First, hate speech is political. In each country, religious, political, or military elites perpetrate, encourage, or benefit from hate speech and identity-based violence. Even when intergroup hostility emerges organically, elites often seize these destructive sentiments for their advantage rather than try to diffuse the tension.
Hate speech and communally charged rhetoric have become common features of political campaigns. During India’s 2019 general election, the BJP and Prime Minister Modi’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric sparked anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmiri violence. Burmese political elites commonly employ hate speech and violent rhetoric to mobilize supporters. The perceived threat of religious minorities is wielded during election campaigns to mobilize the Buddhist majority.
Hate speech and violence also shape politics outside of election cycles. In Bangladesh, religious elites, often affiliated with opposition parties or Islamist movements, have seized fake blasphemy claims to foment interreligious violence. In some cases—including the anti-Buddhist riot in Cox’s bazar—political figures from Bangladesh’s main parties reportedly joined the mob. In Sri Lanka, politicians have used anti-Muslim rhetoric to divert attention from economic mismanagement. Amid the recent sugar import scandal that has implicated high-level government officials in corruption, the Rajapaksa government has targeted Muslims with a proposed ban on the burka.
Second, hate speech and violence target minority groups, cleaving onto historically embedded conflict dynamics in South and Southeast Asia. Across these cases, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are the victimizers and victims of this rhetoric and violence, depending on their demographic position in the country.
In the region, longstanding tension over the ethnoreligious identity of the state has created persistent anxiety among the majority identity group about their status and safety. Although typically not grounded in reality, the majority’s paranoia creates a highly combustible setting in which even the smallest slight—real, perceived, or concocted—can result in violence against a vulnerable minority.
Addressing the Problem: The Need for a Citizen-Centered Approach
In response to these instances, several governments in South and Southeast Asia have expanded their powers to regulate online speech. For example, Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (2018) and article 66d of Burma’s Telecommunications Act (2013) create new regulatory authority ostensibly designed to limit hate speech and disinformation. However, critics have charged the governments with abusing these often vaguely worded laws to target political opponents and limit dissent.
Technology companies have also attempted to control harmful speech on their platforms. Facebook, which has come under growing criticism, has enacted new community guidelines on hate speech, hired native speakers across Asia and created automated tools to monitor and remove content, changed product features, deactivated groups, and banned users. Still, the avalanche of content on Facebook produced in over one hundred languages makes the task of preventing or removing all violent and hateful content almost impossible.
Several underlying factors limit the effectiveness of governments’ and technology companies’ attempts to regulate hate speech. First, even good-faith restrictions on online speech spark a debate about freedom of expression as the boundary between controversial opinions and violence-inducing hate is not always clear. Second, social media provides anonymity and accelerates the spread of information, which makes it inherently difficult to regulate. And third, political incentives undermine hate speech regulations in South and Southeast Asia. In the region, hate speech is effective at mobilizing people, and hate speech targeting minority groups is often popular. These two factors create a strong disincentive for politicians to control hate speech.
In this setting of technological and socio-political barriers to controlling hate speech–and where governments are prone to overreach–what other approaches could work? Across the world, citizen-centered and civil society-led initiatives have proved to be an important complement to new rules from governments and tech companies. Digital literacy workshops are teaching citizens how to recognize and report misleading content and hate speech. Fact checking groups are systematically examining, reporting, and rebutting online falsehoods that can lead to violence. Journalists are using their authority to call out politicians who spread rumors for political gain. And CSOs are advising and informing the efforts of governments and tech companies.
Similar initiatives are emerging in the region. For example, civil society groups in Burma have successfully combatted online hate speech by documenting and reporting its instances to social media platforms. In advance of the 2020 Burma elections, civil society groups successfully pressured social media platforms to develop new tools and policies to reduce hate speech and rumors targeting religious and ethnic minorities. Other civil society programs in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere indicate a developing trend, but expansion is needed.
The growth of Internet access in South and Southeast Asia will undoubtedly result in more online hate speech, fake news, and rumors that spill over into real-world violence. Minority groups will be most vulnerable, but the negative consequences of this new reality will ripple across societies. To control this problem, the response should be top-down and bottom-up. Governments and technology companies must work to regulate online spaces where hatred flourishes. But citizens and civil society organizations also have an essential role in stopping hate speech from metastasizing into social conflict and hopefully preventing its occurrence in the first place.
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Jeremy Liebowitz is the Resident Program Director for Burma at the International Republican Institute.
Geoffrey Macdonald is the Program Director for Bangladesh at the International Republican Institute.
Vivek Shivaram is the Program Manager for South Asia at the International Republican Institute.
Sanjendra Vignaraja is the Senior Program Manager for Sri Lanka at the International Republican Institute.
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