Fighting hate speech with tech

Civil society organisations, technologists and others came together last week in Yangon to find ways to answer hate speech and dangerous speech with technology.

Though the old saying goes that sticks and stones break bones and words can’t hurt, there’s no question one can lead to the other. To help counter the problem, newly minted innovation lab Phandeeyar, Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO) and United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted a PeaceTech Exchange in Yangon’s community and tech hub, SuleTech.

Connectivity has helped enable both freedom of expression and the spread of hate speech and dangerous speech, which spurs concerns about what happens when millions more get connected in Myanmar.

“If 10 percent [connectivity] is already driving [speech issues], what will 75pc drive?” said Noel Dickover, senior program officer at the PeaceTech Lab at USIP.

While some might propagate problematic speech without ill intent – by sharing information online without weighing its veracity – others have dedicated themselves to its spread. “We have some groups that are intentionally spreading hate speech and trying to start violence. They have technology, funding, the big backer,” said MIDO executive director Ko Nay Phone Latt.

“On the other side we have some of civil society working for peace and against hate speech, but our weakness is that ... they don’t know how to use the technology for their needs or have the funding,” he continued.

The three-day PeaceTech Exchange, which saw international and local technologists connected with more than 70 civil society organisations, sought to remedy these two problems through networking, technical training, group sessions and finally, a workshop on applying for grants. At the event, CSOs boiled down challenges for technologists, resulting in particular “problem statements” that dealt with issues like the dissemination of bad information and spreading peaceful stories across Myanmar. Next came strategies for taking on issues with technology.

“One recurring theme is that there are many examples of communities working together in peace and harmony, and many civil society groups feel those stories aren’t being very well told, if at all,” said Phandeeyar founder David Madden.

The event centres on teaching people how to use tech tools to promote a healthier information ecosystem, Mr Madden said, adding participants had been learning about practices such as fact-checking and photo verification.

MIDO program manager Ma Htaike Htaike Aung highlighted three elements – monitoring, reporting and rapid response – some CSOs included in projects combating dangerous speech. The measures could involve actions like watching over media and event mapping. “For rapid response, some are thinking of having this mechanism where people can respond to rumours and speeches or false news that could incite violence,” she said.

Ma Htaike Htaike Aung said mainstream media access and high levels of connectivity help fortify urban areas against speech-related incidents, though violence did break out in Mandalay. But “the pattern is always around rural areas where it’s hard for people to get rapid response in terms of dangerous speeches or rumours”, she said.

The digital divide between Myanmar’s urban and rural communities can make it hard to use technology in the battle against hate speech. Ma Htaike Htaike Aung said a Karen state CSO couldn’t oppose offline sermons by monks and doctored photos from the web spread via CDs, pamphlets and posters with online solutions. “In terms of using the internet to kind of counter that message, it’s impossible,” she said.

Ko Nay Phone Latt said answers to issues need to consider both online and offline approaches. Phandeeyar program manager Ko Yan Naung Oak said a range of technologists at the event had particular advice for the majority of attendees hailing from outside Yangon. Tech touched on spanned SMS and radio to data visualisation. “There’s a whole spectrum,” he said.

CSOs had the chance on the event’s last day to learn how to put plans to paper for grant proposals. USIP has US $100,000 to $200,000 available to fund organisations whose high-calibre, speech-oriented proposals receive approval from its board.

“The hope is we get projects in place with funding such that there’s almost this counter approach in monitoring that goes with the trend line moving upwards,” Mr Dickover said.

At the PeaceTech Exchange, a large, diverse crowd that counted youths, monks, techies and more worked together in a downtown tower overlooking one of the city’s most diverse corners, with City Hall, Sule Pagoda, a Baptist church, a mosque and Independence Monument 11 storeys below.

“We got independence because of everybody fighting for independence,” Ko Nay Phone Latt said.