Buddhist nationalists used Facebook to fuel hate speech in Myanmar

Executive Summary

In August 2017, militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, triggering a massive military response. Alongside the military’s campaign to drive ARSA out of Rakhine, another campaign was underway as well, this one online. In the days following the violence, we tracked a surge of new Twitter accounts using the hashtags, “#Bengali #terrorists” to spread hateful content and accuse the Rohingya community at large of perpetrating the attacks against the police. This was the first time groups in Myanmar had used Twitter in an attempt to influence the international perception of the violence. However, Buddhist nationalists and other extremists have used Facebook for years to spread hate speech and target Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar. The crisis in Rakhine gave Myanmar’s nationalists a fresh opportunity to increase their attacks in social media, particularly at a time when the use Facebook in the country has surged, and public debate is often shaped on the platform.

Several Facebook Groups in Myanmar act as vectors of hate speech and misinformation. In November 2017 we examined one of these Facebook Groups by looking at the groups in which Ashin Wirathu – a leading nationalist monk – was a member. We discovered a 55,000 member Facebook Group, “Platform for Ma Ba Tha supporters,” which described itself as a “hangout” for “Buddhist patriots.” Ma Ba Tha, or the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, was banned in 2017 after Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy accused the group of inflaming religious and ethnic tensions.


Key Findings

  • We retrieved 14,720 posts from the Facebook Group, with posts sent between June 2016 and November 2017; nearly 90% of posts, or around 13,000, were posted between August – November, with the frequency of posts increasing substantially after the attacks by ARSA
  • 1,684 unique accounts posted messages to the Group, meaning that just 0.03% of the members produced the majority of content
  • By examining the number of posts per hour over time, we discovered what appeared to be an organized campaign to incite hatred and vilify Rohingya during the height of the crisis and the following months
  • 3-4 members of the Group contributed to a large majority of monthly posts, sending as many as 300 posts each month
  • Among the top 20 posts (by the number of shares), content about Muslims, Islam, “Bengalis,” and Rohingya were prominent
  • Posts warned about overpopulation by Muslims, the border fence, and compared Muslims to animals. Images – usually gruesome injuries or dead bodies, allegedly victims of “Bengali terrorists” – were widespread immediately after the ARSA attacks.
  • These posts clearly violated Facebook’s Community Standards. It is unclear if anyone reported the posts or the Group to Facebook. The group was closed down by Facebook after March 2018


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Sample post (which was in English) from a post in the Group: 

We would like to talk you about Bangali.
They are terroist.They killed Buddishs
Hindu and Christiam many people
including the child.They are fire-bug homey leave out into the jungle and terroist gang
annexe and attack police station and ambush furtiveness lined Rakhine and Hindu people.If you even distrust this situration this photo and video are authenti
cate for you . Actually Myanmar Rakhine people are attacked by so called Bangali . There is no Rohingya in myanmar history . There was no Rohingya in our country. Anyway we protect our people from Bangali terrorists . We can never killed innocent people Bangali .Shame for spreading fake news. Shame on RFA BBC VOA CNN  spreading fake news and Videos and
don’t try to find the truth .They killed Rakhine Hindu most women and children .
Bangali are very bad like animals. This is not religious war . This is anti terrorists war. They first attack police station Rakhine and Hindii peoples.We don’t hate innocent Bangali . You all believe fake new pic and video .Burmese army don’t kill this kid. The
world media show only Bangalis victims.
They don’t show Rakhine and Hindu victims. Muslim are Muslim.Bangali are Bangali are Bangali .They are dissimilar .We hate only Bangali terroists.
We myanmar people don’t want any Muslims and Bangali terrorist .Take them to your country Because there are no ethnic
called Rohingyas in Myanmar . Who are the real terrorists all over the world !  we want to say that BBC VOA CNN and RFA You should try to find the truth : ———-
                                Thank you very much,
                        Written by ” Kyein Done Nyo”



To retrieve the data, we used Rfacebook, an open-source package that allows users of R (a programming language) to access Facebook’s API. The Rfacebook package allows users to access data that is publicly available on Facebook , such as public Pages and Groups. Each post contains specific variables which can be aggregated, such as a timestamp, the author of the post, the text, the type of post, link, and interaction data, such as the number of shares, comments, and likes.

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