A perspective from Miu Kumakura, Myanmar team manager in the Human Rights Investigations Lab, Spring 2018
Over the past few semesters, our team has been examining the the plight of the Rohingya and analyzing how much of what happens in the physical world on the ground is reflected in the virtual world on social media. We have looked into the social media platforms of key social figures such as government officials and groups like the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement and the ARSA militants to record and understand the hateful rhetoric that these actors promote online, thereby sustaining the conflict. We have done this by using open source methods to document, verify, and archive the words, photos, or videos on their social media platforms and have realized that social media has been used in two mains ways: first as a means to incite violence and disseminate hate speech, and second as a means to deny blame and reject criticisms of human rights violations. We have found posts in which the Rohingya are referred to as “detestable human flees” and statements in which the government explains how the mass exodus is a result of choice and not of an intentional campaign to push the Rohingya out. Myanmar is an interesting case to focus on because the rise in violence over the past five years is correlated with the rise in tech accessibility in society, pointing to how our physical and virtual worlds often collide and how words said online can mobilize people into committing acts of violence. It is an important case because as international attention on the issue increases, there needs to be a larger effort to collect online evidence of human rights abuse with an eye for accountability. Our lab contributes to the expanding dialogue on the need to better monitor hate online and to the growing focus on using online evidence in courts. As those who seek to use social media as a tool to manipulate hate and fear highlight the negative consequences of technology, we at the lab are using their weapon of choice—social media—against them as a way to uphold our commitment to justice and human rights.
At the individual level, the lab has been incredibly meaningful for me because it has provided me with a sense of purpose and a sense of agency. As a political science student, I knew that I was interested in international affairs and human rights but I was struggling to define what exactly these broad terms meant to me. I wanted to specify my interests and to understand why I cared deeply about this field. The lab allowed me to do exactly this: it helped me narrow my interests and to approach my studies from a more focused lens of the intersection of human rights and technology. More importantly is my new sense of agency. I have always found it odd that there is a gap between the people who are passionate about contributing to the human rights space and the tools they need to do so. It was not enough for me to simply talk about problems I saw in the world and then to think about the ways I can tackle those problems in the future, after school. The lab answered to this obstacle as well and offered a different perspective: it told me that I can learn about problems and address them at the same time, which was and continues to be quite empowering. At the lab, we are given the tools to ask and answer our own questions and to contribute to the process of creating the stories that matter. Through this, it tells students that they are competent and that they can make a positive impact, encouraging them to step outside the role of responders and enter the role of actors. The lab has made me feel more able than helpless and has strengthened my will to be an active advocate of human dignity and human rights.