How to start a riot out of Facebook: Yousuf Saeed
Guest post by YOUSUF SAEED
I am utterly shocked and pained to read about the violent rally that many Muslims took out at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on 11 August 2012 in protest against the recent communal carnage in Assam and Burma. More than the accidental death of two men and 50 injured in yesterday’s protest, what alarmed me was the public anger targeted on the media for “not reporting about the violence against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar”. Several vans of TV channels and their equipment were smashed or burnt besides a number of police vehicles destroyed. Of course, the authorities are still probing as to who really began the violence in an otherwise peaceful rally (and we are open to the results of such a probe). But my worst fear came true with this assertion of one of the protesters in a newspaper report: “Why is the media not covering Burma and Assam? We learnt about the incidents from videos posted on the Internet.” This seems to be a very disturbing statement on various accounts. Of course, the media can sometimes be biased, and the Muslims do feel victimised by it all the time. But are the random videos and images posted on the Internet any less biased or misleading?
Some of you may have recently noticed a number of gory and blood-soaked images being forwarded and shared on various social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter that claim to show the dead bodies of “20,000 Muslims butchered in Burma in the hands of Buddhists” along with the assertion that the world’s media is silent about the plight of Muslims in Burma and so on. Most of those images are really disturbing, capable of making anyone’s blood boil. Some show mounds of rotting dead bodies and a few Buddhist monks standing near them. Some even looked digitally tempered with to enhance their anti-Muslim violence. But there was no sign of where these images were sourced from. A couple of them even had Jama’t-e Islami, Pakistan, stamped on them. But if, as the people posting them claim, the world’s media is silent about the Muslim carnage in Burma, how did these images and the disturbing news come from Burma in the first place? Where did they find them before posting? I asked this question to many friends sharing these images and they didn’t have a clue. They simply believed in what they saw. In fact, from the Internet these pictures were picked up by many Urdu newspapers from Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi and printed with inflammatory titles and headlines. Many new caricatures and info-graphics started appearing on Facebook ridiculing the “peaceful” image of Buddhists or the “silence” of Burmese leader Aung Suu Kyi on the carnage of Rohingya Muslims and so on.
Many of us were sceptical of these images and knew something was wrong. Some images do show the facial features of the victims to be Mongoloid, but that doesn’t prove they are from Burma. In any case, most Rohingya Muslims are not clearly Mongoloid – some look like Bangladeshi. With some investigation it was revealed that almost none of the gory images titled “Muslim slaughter in Burma” were actually from Burma. They came from different sources, mostly showing people killed in natural disasters in China, Thailand and even self-immolation attempts by Tibetans. The best investigation of these fake pictures was made by Faraz Ahmed in a blog of the Express Tribune newspaper from Pakistan (“Social media is lying to you about Burma’s Muslim ‘cleansing’”), where he busted the myth about 3-4 of the most circulated of such images, tracing their origins in China, Thailand and Tibet. One image actually shows Buddhist monks cremating thousands of people killed in a Chinese earthquake. In fact, a few images of dead bodies or people escaping from violent situations are clearly from places like Syria or Africa. The only authentic images of the affected Rohingya Muslims are those showing them in the boats waiting to enter Bangladesh. Nevertheless, many of our Muslim friends in India, Pakistan and other places continued to post and share such fake and fabricated images, adding more and more vitriolic comments on them to spread hatred against Buddists. I and a few friends even tried to bust these postings by warning them about the fake pictures, but our efforts had little impact.
I must clarify that I am not denying the killing and persecution of Muslims in Burma. I did some research as to what exactly happened and how many Muslims were really affected. Contrary to the popular belief that the world’s media and human rights fraternity is silent about Burma’s Muslim carnage, I did find a lot of detailed reporting and analysis of the human rights violation (including from Al Jazeera, BBC and New York Times, though very little from India), which ironically very few protesting Muslims may have read. The most comprehensive report on this has been brought out in August 2012 by the American organisation, Human Rights Watch, titled, “The Government Could Have Stopped This – Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State” (.pdf here). This 57-page report states that it was communal violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakan Buddhists which took the life of 78 people (according to government figures) – a number that includes both communities. Many villages of both communities were torched and over 100,000 people were displaced from their homes. But there is clearly no mention of 20,000 or more Muslims butchered as claimed by many on Facebook.
Of course, none of the protesters read these detailed and balanced reports. For them the fake pictures of blood and gore were provocative enough to come to the streets. This is not the first time that social networking has been used to a large extent to bring people on the streets. We have seen more revolutionary uses of Facebook in the case of overthrowing of regimes in Egypt and other Arab countries. But to start a communal riot using visual rumours is not the most desirable uses of the Internet. If you study social networking sites deeply, especially if you have a wide range of ‘friends’ including the possible rumour-mongers, you may find postings that are deliberately trying to provoke in one way or the other. Just yesterday I found on Facebook a photo showing cut-up and mutilated body parts of two dead women lying in a forest, with a caption saying “Wake-up Hindus. These are bodies of Hindu girls who were raped and killed by Mullahs”. Of course, this image has been “liked” and shared by thousands of people throwing choicest of abuses on Muslims. But no one tried to reason out that there is no proof that the picture actually shows dead Hindu girls – there is not even any indication of where and when this picture was taken. But for a new generation of net-savvy youngsters (some of whom may have come to Mumbai’s streets yesterday), simply seeing on Facebook is believing. I shudder to think that such rabble-rousing use of the Internet might increase especially when some people realise that such an action can have practical repercussions. We have seen that in almost all communal riots, people deliberately initiated nasty rumours just to “have some fun”. But in the past, rumours spread in localised areas by word of mouth, whereas today it is possible to spread hate-filled messages over large areas of the world within seconds. The spread of Burma’s fake images has even allowed the Tehreek-e Taliban of Pakistan to issue a threat to Burmese people, and it needs to be taken seriously.
We don’t know if there is a ready solution to this menace. Censorship of the Internet as suggested by some (especially in the Indian government) is clearly not the answer since that may suppress even some of the harmless content. But what is definitely required is advocacy amongst net-users on how to read online content more critically. Unlike in the more conventional media such as newspapers, TV or radio, its possible today for anyone to ‘track-back’ any content posted on the Internet to see where it originated from. For instance Google’s reverse image search allows you track who may have originally posted a certain image and who manipulated it later. Just a few days ago an Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung published a photo showing a Syrian couple with a baby escaping from a bombed building. Later, it turned out that they had cut-out the couple and the baby from an earlier photo and morphed it on the image of a ruined building, just for the effect! Hence, media manipulation by big and small players is here to stay. The only way one can avert possible riots and violent mobbing is to stop believing (and forwarding) everything that is posted online and investigate how true a picture is, and most importantly, where it came from.
(Yousuf Saeed is a Delhi-based independent filmmaker and author, working on themes of peace and shared cultural traditions in south Asia.)
- Ayesha Siddiqa: National contestation, not religion, is responsible for the plight of Rohingyas
- Express Tribune: Bangladesh bans foreign charities helping Rohingyas
- The Hindu: Myanmar refugees find safe haven in Hyderabad
- TwoCircles.net: Mumbai violence:Protest organisers issue statement