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Polarising Narratives and Deepening Fault Lines: Social Media, Intolerance and Extremism in Four Asian Nations

Polarising Narratives and Deepening Fault Lines: Social Media, Intolerance and Extremism in Four Asian Nations
2nd March 2021 Jordan Newton

This report is also available in French, German and Arabic.

Please read on for the Introduction.

Asia accounted for almost 60% of the world’s online social networking users in 2020. As in other parts of the world, different groups and actors throughout the continent have exploited these contemporary media methods to realise their extremist ambitions. Whether based on religious bigotry, sectarian contempt or ethnic hatred, social media accounts are deployed to recruit followers, exacerbate social fault lines and organise violence. Global technology companies are increasingly working with national governments in South and Southeast Asia to curb some of the most blatant abuse, but as some problems are managed, fresh issues emerge in the quickly evolving landscape.

This report aims to provide a concise update on the developing threats posed by actors with different extremist profiles in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India. In recent years, these four nations have experienced violent extremism unfolding in separate forms but elevated and impacted by the same dramatic increase in social media uptake, particularly on mobile devices. India, Indonesia and the Philippines now comprise three of the top six Facebook user populations in the world, while Myanmar is in 19th place, despite ranking 82nd in global Internet penetration. Hundreds of millions of new social media accounts have been generated in these four countries alone over the past few years.

While violent extremists have profited from this unprecedented audience expansion, content moderation mechanisms have eventually caught up following a range of attacks and organised violence closely associated with technology platforms. There is still much work to be done to keep extremists away from user accounts while limiting the impact on legitimate communications. But an even more pressing challenge is the tendency for social media platforms to encourage interactions and posts that foment societal polarisation and the subsequent demonisation of perceived ‘others’. While terrorist propaganda may have disintegrated, pushed into the margins of online discourse, disinformation and toxic arguments in the mainstream could prove just as effective for violent extremist recruitment and radicalisation.

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