What Our Readers (Really) Say

By Colin Hinshelwood 14 June 2012

Every week The Irrawaddy publishes a round-up of comments from our readers. We generally choose the most thought-provoking remarks, unique insights or well-structured opinions that swim against the current.

Many subscribers say they often find the readers comments section at the foot of the page more educational, and certainly more emotive, than the article itself. The threads often embark on their own direction, and we take pride in noting that our readers are intelligent, eloquent and passionate about the topics.

In recent days, however, we have spent more time deleting and censoring comments than ever before. The issue that has provoked these unprintable statements is, of course, the sectarian violence in Arakan State and the status of the Rohingyas.

No other issue can be guaranteed to ignite passions to such extremes. Over the years, The Irrawaddy has covered civil war, Cyclone Nargis, a violent military crackdown on Buddhist monks; yet nothing can stoke the flames of our readership like the Rohingya question.

In one fell swoop, the Internet is no longer a place to engage in a public discussion, but a platform to incite murder, to insult, to threaten, to ridicule, to disseminate propaganda—and it can all be done anonymously.

Perhaps we should explain The Irrawaddy‘s policy regarding readers’ comments on our site. First and foremost, we allow you to write whatever you want, providing you don’t use offensive language or racial insults, or try to spread propaganda or incite violence. That warning has been reiterated on all articles concerning the Arakan crisis.

Unlike the majority of news sites, we painstakingly moderate every comment; we physically read or scan each and every opinion you send in before we publish it. You will no doubt have noted on other websites how threads can quickly turn nasty, and how—under the cloak of anonymity—commenters will abuse a system that is not monitored.

There is even an Internet adage to describe this macabre form of cyberwar: it’s called Godwin’s Law.  Godwin notes a modern phenomenon, that once an argument erupts between two readers online it descends until one person accuses the other of being a Nazi or a fascist, at which point he has effectively lost the argument.

All Burma watchers will have noted how rabid the online threads quickly became with regards the Arakan dispute as online warriors spat venom back and forth at each other. Many partisans have set up Facebook accounts or blogs to gather like-minded vigilantes, and to disseminate rumors and accusations. Media groups, including The Irrawaddy, which would usually rely on local news sites for information, have instead decided not to report second-hand stories from local reporters and bloggers because they are not proving trustworthy, and because their versions of the same story are so polemical and polarized.

With regard to the “sectarian violence in Arakan State”—which is the most neutral terminology we could come up with—more than 50 percent of our readers’ comments have had to be deleted. Many contained racial slurs; others called for violence against one group or the other. Some ranted and raved using an array of expletives; others peddle unsubstantiated stories accusing their enemies of atrocities. A few even threatened The Irrawaddy staff—“We’ll get you when you come back to Burma!” and the likes.

Protesters in Burma have singled out other exile and international media for vitriol. DVB was hacked; other news agencies decided to skim over the incidents, no doubt fearing reprisals from those bigots who believe that unless a news agency subscribes to their partisan dogma, then it is, in fact, biased in favor of the “other side.”

A climate of fear and loathing has taken root in many Burmese journals and websites.  They should follow The Irrawaddy‘s lead and stop allowing their sites to be used as platforms for racial vendettas.