As the recent incident involving the Myanmar leader highlights, the powerful social media can transform the complex world into a picture drawn in only black and white.
Over the last several days a post has been making the rounds on social media attacking Aung San Suu Kyi for “unabashed racism” and harbouring an anti-Muslim sentiment. The source of the controversy appears to be some articles in British newspaper The Independent, one of which was headlined Aung San Suu Kyi: What the ‘interviewed by Muslim’ BBC Today programme comment can tell us about her views.
This was picked up by many people across social media, most notably by Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi who posted an attack on the Myanmar politician on his Facebook page. He references an article in Pakistan’s Tribune Express, titled Anti-Muslim spat: Myanmar’s leader Suu Kyi loses cool with BBC’s Mishal Husain. The post garnered many comments, all concurring with Dabashi’s view that the incident demonstrates unambiguously Suu Kyi’s supposed “unabashed anti-Muslim racism.”
Rather, a quick review of the evidence demonstrates, yet again, how sensationalist headlines and uncritical re-posting and commentary can allow social media and Internet journalism to mislead rather than educate.
In this case, it is disappointing that some have so readily shared and re-posted what appears to be at best unsubstantiated hearsay and what in my view is an unjustified attack on Suu Kyi. I have watched the YouTube segment of her interview with BBC reporter Mishal Husain. I found it neither “tense” nor “torrid”, tabloid terms used by The Independent to describe the interview. In my view, her answers to an extremely difficult topic (Muslim-Buddhist relations in Myanmar) were measured and well thought out. The question of whether murderous attacks on a social group constitutes ethnic cleansing or genocide involves complex legal aspects as well as moral ones, recognition of which in no way reduces the significance of these attacks. As for the source of her alleged comment expressing an anti-Muslim prejudice, Peter Popham writes in The Independent: “After a torrid interview with Mishal Husain for the Today programme, she was reportedly heard to say angrily, ‘No-one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’ I was told this by a reliable source and quoted it in my new book, The Lady and the Generals.” Moreover, neither Husain nor Suu Kyi have commented on this nor was Suu Kyi asked for a comment. Who the “reliable source” is, is not mentioned.
More importantly, even if she did say those words, what after all might they imply? Dabashi has written eloquently elsewhere on the importance of recognising nuance and ambiguity in discourse, of which context is surely an integral part. But here he seems to have overlooked his own counsel. The context of the utterance in question is crucial – why for example might it matter that the interviewer is Muslim? In fact, Popham offers a plausible explanation having nothing directly to do with religious matters, pointing instead to the highly constrained nature of the democracy movement in Myanmar. The fact is, based on the reported evidence, we simply don’t know fully what the context was. Until we do, I think it best to refrain from heaping calumny on a public figure who, until proven otherwise, deserves our respect.
It is disheartening that many of the comments on Dabashi’s Facebook post endorsed the original claim, apparently without checking for themselves and relying on secondhand sources, such as the Tribune Express piece, which taken by itself could hardly be relied upon as providing a decisive interpretation, in this case especially.
Such is the fate of ambiguity in the world of social media, where with one iteration of likes and clicks the world of tragic paradoxes is easily transformed into a picture drawn in only black and white.
Kian Tajbakhsh is a visiting professor at Columbia University.