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Insights and Analysis

In Southeast Asia, Violent Conflicts Move Online

October 28, 2020

By Adam Burke, Benjamin Lokshin

When violent conflicts broke out recently in the Philippines, Myanmar, and other parts of Southeast Asia, the action occurred not just in the streets of Marawi or Mandalay, but also on social media. Social media platforms have been used to incite local activists to attack unarmed targets, and to promote intolerance and violence against ethnic or religious minorities. As Facebook, Twitter, and a slew of other global online platforms and messaging services have followed cellphone penetration into the most remote villages of Southeast Asia, violent groups and their supporters are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to turn social media into a new front in Southeast Asia’s festering subnational conflicts.

This wide-ranging phenomenon is the subject of a new report by The Asia Foundation’s Conflict & Fragility and Technology teams, Violent Conflict, Tech Companies, and Social Media in Southeast Asia. The report presents the mounting evidence that both violent nonstate groups and governments in the region are using social media to promote inflammatory public narratives, whip up discrimination, raise funds, recruit fighters, and organize acts of violence.

Devastation in Marawi, the Philippines, 2017 (Photo: Adam Burke / The Asia Foundation)

In one of the most memorable and shocking episodes, violent extremists in the Philippines used online tools and platforms as they planned, executed, and publicized the occupation of Marawi City in 2017. The siege of Marawi lasted five months, causing over a thousand deaths, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and widespread destruction across the city from government airstrikes and artillery and the razing of churches and public buildings by militants.

Throughout the siege, militants produced sophisticated, in-house video coverage in real time for an engrossed online audience, including drone footage of the ruined city and pleas from prominent hostages. The messaging app Telegram kept Marawi militants in constant contact with large and committed audiences across the globe. Field reports were rapidly translated and shared in multiple languages. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines conducted their own social media operations to discredit these claims and promote their humanitarian efforts in the city, battling the militants both online and off.

A city block destroyed by bombing

The siege of Marawi was fought both in the streets and online. (Photo: Sam Chittick / The Asia Foundation)

Amid this growing digital arms race, the governments of several countries have also launched sophisticated operations employing disinformation techniques to spread messages via fake Facebook accounts and false news stories—in some cases intentionally inflaming communal violence against religious minorities, and in other cases undermining democratic processes. In Myanmar, hundreds of propaganda pages operated by the military were taken down by Facebook in the second half of 2018, following a UN fact-finding report that the platform was being used to incite hatred and encourage violence. The report found that Facebook’s wide reach, audience engagement, and ability to be gamed by fake accounts allowed the promotion of negative and hostile attitudes towards Rohingya people in particular. At the same time, social media also enabled the emergence of new violent groups in the country, including the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a poorly armed militia of foot soldiers that used messaging apps to organize and prepare for assaults on police forces, and the Arakan Army, a much better equipped and trained ethnic Rakhine armed organization. Growing in strength over time, the Arakan Army has used online media to gain support both within Rakhine State and elsewhere. The online propaganda war between Arakan Army insurgents and the Myanmar military continues in Rakhine State alongside intense fighting on the ground.

These online tactics take advantage of widely recognized characteristics of social media, which tend to reward emotionally resonant content and strip away important context and nuance. Some of these techniques were introduced to Southeast Asian groups by foreign actors, including the Islamic State. But local conditions are also crucial to how social media is used in the region’s conflicts. In any given conflict zone, the characteristics of the online space reflect local levels of literacy, the presence or absence of common languages, the penetration and speed of internet connectivity, the prevalence of smartphones, local preferences for particular apps, and the nature of the conflict itself. All of these local factors are layered on top of the constantly evolving social media technology, making this a highly complex issue.

Scars of battle in Marawi (Photo: Sam Chittick / The Asia Foundation)

For the tech companies that operate these platforms, addressing the use of their products for violence and conflict is a constant struggle, and Southeast Asia has many characteristics that make the task more difficult. The landscape of conflict is fragmented, with many small, armed groups, some of which also act as community benefit organizations, ethnic or religious networks, or political parties. Their tactics vary widely and change rapidly depending on local demographics and operational needs, precluding a one-size-fits-all response. In addition, Southeast Asian state actors may themselves be protagonists in these violent conflicts and may use their legal sway over platform companies to silence the voices of peaceful dissidents and to prevent scrutiny of their own efforts to manipulate or misinform.

Peacebuilding, mitigation, and research efforts by civil society have not kept up with this emerging theater of regional conflict. Most of the peacebuilding programs to date have been in Myanmar, where the links between violence and online spaces have been subject to intense international scrutiny. But gauging the effectiveness of these programs is complicated, and reliable evidence is scarce.

Meanwhile, government-led conflict mitigation often devolves into the policing or militarization of online spaces, with no accountability for state actors and no formal recourse for their opponents—a fraught scenario when the military or the police may also be perpetrators of violence. In Southeast Asia, where conflicts frequently stem from grievances against the state, policing the internet can violate civil liberties and exacerbate violence. At a time of instability and increasing tensions in many countries, online spaces have become a contested and often violent terrain.

Moving forward

Addressing the online drivers of conflict and violence in Southeast Asia will be a long-term challenge, and no one group bears responsibility, but there are things that tech companies, civil society groups, and governments can do to counteract the use of social media for violence.

First, there is a dire need for independent monitoring and evidence-based research. Indicators managed by independent groups like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and ACLED (the Armed Conflict Location and Events Data Project) provide important data on incidents in the physical world. These international groups rely in turn on locally managed programs like Thailand’s Deep South Watch and Myanmar’s Township-based Conflict Monitoring System. But data is scarce for the online dimensions of conflict, for which the parameters themselves are not yet well defined. A number of studies have examined social media’s impact on specific violent conflicts in Southeast Asia, but many more conflicts have been superficially studied or ignored. Documentation of mitigation efforts is also patchy. As online platforms grow more integral to conflict dynamics, these research gaps will be a serious obstacle to understanding and responding to violent conflicts across the region.

Second, new policy frameworks are needed to promote shared norms and transparent regulation in cyberspace. Governments can do more to hold tech companies to their promises of transparent reporting and enforcement of community standards against violence and conflict. International norms and standards are also lagging behind, and Southeast Asian governments and institutions will need to be active participants in this global conversation. Regional forums can help, by keeping governments and civil society connected with events in neighboring countries and with wider global trends and good practices.

Third, tech companies should support local participation in conflict mitigation. With better technology, more experience, and greater vigilance, large social media companies have improved their effectiveness against abuse, but even the best measures are often unequal to the complexities of Southeast Asia, which call for an approach that is sensitive to local conditions and adaptable through audits and local dialogue.

Finally, peacebuilding and conflict prevention need innovation, collaboration, and learning. Research shows positive messaging does spread widely on social media, even in deeply conflict-affected areas, and local peacebuilding groups have had some success promoting such messages online, especially in concert with real-world activities. Smart responses led by civil society can also foster more effective governance under fragile conditions, especially when local technical specialists are able to work directly alongside government and social media companies.

The Asia Foundation’s local partners and peacebuilding programs, as well as many of our counterparts across the region, increasingly use social media platforms to combat misinformation and counter hate. But this is not enough. Civil society, tech firms, and governments need to recognize that social media is now in the mainstream of political life and social change. As Southeast Asia’s many long-standing conflicts adapt to this new landscape, concerted action will be needed across the board to ensure that online manipulation does not continue to undermine real-world peace and justice.

Read the new report Violent Conflict, Tech Companies, and Social Media in Southeast Asia.

Benjamin Lokshin is assistant director for technology programs and Adam Burke is regional director for conflict and fragility for The Asia Foundation. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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