Countering Hate Speech
Perspectives from Peace and Development Advisors in Myanmar and The Gambia
The use of hate speech to rile up emotions against “the other” is not a new phenomenon. In recent decades hate speech has served as a precursor to the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda. A relatively new development is the use of digital communications and social media to incite hatred, harassment, discrimination and violence. New technology has made it easier to inject hate into the mainstream and reach new audiences at dizzying speed.
To counter the effects of this phenomenon, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched on 18 June 2019 a new UN strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech. Guterres called hate speech a “direct assault on our core values of tolerance, inclusion and respect for human rights and human dignity” and urged everyone – the United Nations, governments, the private sector, academia and civil society – to do more to fight it.
The strategy aims to coordinate efforts across the UN System to get at the root causes of hate speech and enable the world organization to respond effectively to its impact on societies. One key part of this system, the UN’s Peace and Development Advisors (PDAs), play an increasingly important role supporting the world body’s representatives around the globe -- the Resident Coordinators and Country Teams -- as they develop effective responses to the root causes and drivers of hate speech. We recently spoke to the PDAs stationed in Myanmar and The Gambia about how the problem manifests itself, and is addressed, in the regions they cover.
Analysts believe that hate speech, transmitted on social media, enabled the wide-spread violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which caused more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group to flee to Bangladesh in the space of a few months. The exodus was caused by a large-scale operation from security forces that was itself triggered by a series of attacks against security outposts in northern Rakhine State by a little-known movement called the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army on 25 August 2017. The offensive by security forces was characterized by widespread and grave cases of human rights violations, according to a report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. Messages circulated at the time denigrating and de-humanizing the Rohingya community and characterizing them as “outsiders or immigrants” that posed an existential threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority population, according to the fact-finding report.
Peter L. Barwick, PDA in Myanmar, believes easy access to new technologies played its part in fanning abuses. “In 2011, when Myanmar’s democratic transition was getting underway, the Government liberalized the mobile telephone market, and in the space of a few short years the society ‘leap-frogged’ from less than 2 per cent of the population having mobile telephones to about half of population owning internet-capable smart phones,” Barwick explained.
Barwick added that, after nearly five decades of military rule, during which the population had limited access to information, one effect of the liberalization was the emergence of a large body of inter-connected social media users, many of whom lacked necessary tools to reflect critically on the authenticity of content or the potential impact of retransmitting socially divisive messaging.
Another element of the story is politics, said Barwick. “Myanmar is undergoing a transition to democracy as well as efforts to broker a peace deal between the Government and numerous ethnic armed organizations. Myanmar society is experiencing a number of rapid social, political and economic changes. In this fluid environment, it appears that some actors calculated they could benefit from fomenting social division, and particularly by stoking xenophobic fears among the majority population. Social media did not so much invent social tensions as much as amplify long-standing and relatively contained tensions in a new and large-scale manner.”
Myanmar will have a general election in 2020, and there are growing concerns that social media will be utilized to once again stoke identity-based tensions to tilt voters towards certain parties and candidates, he said.
Barwick is working with UNESCO and UNDP to develop programming to mitigate the risk of hate speech being used during the upcoming elections. The core elements of this involve working with traditional media outlets to counteract negative messages, assisting Myanmar’s Ministry of Information to promote “digital literacy” through township libraries among the local leaders and generate positive message campaigns on social media to counter negative message trends, and sensitizing the Union Electoral Commission about social media dynamics.
In the fragile transitional context of The Gambia, where Rebecca Adda-Dontoh works as a PDA, hate speech is emerging as a major concern to social cohesion. She said there is not much pro-active leadership messaging that could address, manage and help de-escalate tribal tensions, promote national unity or belonging and the lack of tools for monitoring social media content and resources to engage youth on the constructive use of social media as major challenges to effectively address hate speech in the country.
Adda-Dontoh’s regular reports and the Conflict and Development Analysis (CDA) of The Gambia, conducted by the Gambian Government, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) and the UN in 2018 and updated in 2019, flag issues like hate speech, divisive political rhetoric and abuse of social media as carrying the potential to destabilize the country if unaddressed. With support from the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and the Joint UNDP-DPPA programme on supporting National Capacities for Conflict Prevention, the UN Country Team is conducting projects on transitional justice and social cohesion that among other things aim to respond to tensions and drivers of conflict, including hate speech. Specific tools include Collaborative Leadership and Dialogue retreats for national leaders, conflict-sensitive reporting training for the media in collaboration with the Gambia Press Union and support to conflict early warning monitoring by the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). Preventive diplomacy and good offices by the UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, and the Resident Coordinator in the country encourage unity. Other tools include awareness raising activities targeting communities through media and public outreach activities focusing on intercommunal harmony and highlighting the negative impacts of inflammatory language, stigma and hate speech.
The UN Country Team in The Gambia unanimously agreed on 2 August 2019 to develop a local plan on preventing and countering hate speech in the country. The PDA and OHCHR’s Human Rights Officer in the country have been tasked to draft the plan.
The new UN strategy and Action Plan aims at addressing gaps like those identified by Adda-Dontoh and Barwick, including by setting up a coordinated data collection and research system to better understand root causes, drivers and conditions conducive to hate speech. Additionally, enhancing digital literacy will be of utmost importance to support a new generation of digital citizens to recognize, reject and stand up to hate speech, while not infringing on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The strategy states it clearly: “The UN supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech.”
Title picture: Refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, seen during a visit by the Security Council delegation to the Kutupalong Refugee camp. April 2018. UN Photo/Caroline Gluck