Extensive reports have long made it clear that viral conspiracy theories, rumors, and fake news reports spread on Facebook played a key role in justifying ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, but what we didn't know is that this was a deliberately organized campaign.
What has long appeared to be the work of random citizens and common people was actually a misinformation campaign that is strikingly similar to Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
The New York Times reports that members of Myanmar's military secretly created fake accounts and posed as average citizens on Facebook where they spread conspiracy theories about Rohingya Muslims.
Working in shifts out of bases clustered in foothills near the capital of Naypyidaw, officers were also tasked with collecting intelligence on popular accounts and criticizing posts unfavorable to the military, the people said. So secretive were the operations that all but top leaders had to check their phones at the door. [...]
The Myanmar military’s Facebook operation began several years ago, said the people familiar with how it worked. The military threw major resources at the task, the people said, with as many as 700 people on it.
They began by setting up what appeared to be news pages and pages on Facebook that were devoted to Burmese pop stars, models and other celebrities, like a beauty queen with a penchant for parroting military propaganda. They then tended the pages to attract large numbers of followers, said the people. They took over one Facebook page devoted to a military sniper, Ohn Maung, who had won national acclaim after being wounded in battle. They also ran a popular blog called Opposite Eyes that had no outward ties to the military, the people said.
Facebook suspended the accounts of some of Myanmar's military leaders two months ago in August, but Facebook has said nothing of this greater misinformation campaign, at least not until they were asked about it by the New York Times.
There are some obvious questions about all of this, like how long did Facebook knew about it?
How much money did they make by selling ads in Myanmar during a period of time when they knew their platform was being used for this purpose?
What role did financial concerns play in the decision to not deactivate or even acknowledge Facebook's role in the Rohingya genocide until just recently?
Is Facebook currently aware of something like this happening anywhere else in the world right now?
HBO's John Oliver covered Facebook's presence in Myanmar last month before we learned this was an official military campaign.
Now that I think about it, Russia's interference campaign and Myanmar's genocide campaign are so similar I have to wonder if they talked to the same consultants or advisers. The idea that they developed identical strategies at roughly the same moment in time independent of each other doesn't seem plausible.