WhatsApp the Media Platform of Choice for ARSA

By The Irrawaddy 12 June 2018

YANGON — Facebook’s recent blacklisting of a group of Myanmar Buddhist hardliners, including several monks notorious for hate speech against Rohingya Muslims, was a positive step, but it is not the only social media platform being abused to spread conflict in the country. In particular, concerns are growing about the wide use of the encrypted messaging application WhatsApp by Muslim militants who staged a series of deadly attacks against security outposts in Rakhine State last year.

The Myanmar government has denounced the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as a terrorist group for its Aug. 25 attacks on security forces. According to news reports, ARSA and its followers have been among the most active adopters of WhatsApp, which they use to communicate their views to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They use the service to drum up support, issue updates on the group’s latest military movements and disseminate official press releases.

A number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh told Reuters they had no idea whether the messages, often posted by people with phone numbers registered in the Middle East or other parts of Asia, were actually ARSA members.

Refugees also worry that Bangladeshi security forces are monitoring the messages and looking for ARSA supporters within the camps.

Myanmar is not the only country grappling with the use of WhatsApp by terrorists. The perpetrators of three separate attacks in the U.K. last year — the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks — were later found to have sent messages over the encrypted platform shortly before launching their assaults. Police there have been unable to access the contents of the messages, however.

U Nay Phone Latt, a lawmaker from Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy and an adviser to the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, said it was WhatsApp’s responsibility to monitor for suspicious messages shared via the application, adding that the company should have policies on what content can be viewed and which messages should be blocked.

“The Myanmar government needs to encourage the company to be responsible,” said the adviser to MIDO, a local NGO focusing on ICT for development, Internet freedom and civic technology.

But WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, says privacy is an essential feature of the application. Every message is end-to-end encrypted, which means not even WhatsApp can see the content that is being shared.

“We’ve made it easy to block any phone number with one tap and we encourage people to report problematic messages to WhatsApp so that we can take action,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told The Irrawaddy.

U Nay Phone Latt said the government should engage not only with Facebook but also other messaging developers to explain the problems Myanmar is currently struggling to cope with, including the spread of fake news and hate speech on social media, and urge them to help tackle the problem. Last week, a Facebook team led by the company’s vice president, Simon Milner, visited Myanmar and met with Union Information Minister U Pe Myint to discuss what the company has been doing to tackle the problem of hate speech on its platform.

With 18 million accounts in a population of more than 52 million, Facebook is the most widely used social media platform in Myanmar. Since 2012, it has been heavily used by nationalists and others looking to instigate religious conflict — especially between Buddhists and Muslims — by spreading fake news.

The United Nations has said hate speech and incitement to violence against the Rohingya are rampant on Facebook.

In the wake of the ARSA-led attacks last year, the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in areas with large Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State. The operation caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh. The exodus prompted international condemnation and accusations that the operation amounted to a crime against humanity.