A cellphone user looks at a Facebook page in a shop in Latha street, Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang

CANBERRA — In examining more than 1,000 comments on articles about the Rohingya crisis on the Facebook pages of select Australian media outlets, NGOs are shining a spotlight on the negative commentary that is challenging support for humanitarian responses.

In August 2017, a massive exodus of Rohingya began from their home in Rakhine state in Myanmar to Bangladesh, which now hosts 1 million Rohingya refugees.

Plan International Australia and other NGOs supporting the humanitarian crisis identified negative commentary surrounding the cause of the Rohingya crisis, as well as the response required. Until they examined more than 1,000 comments left on dozens of articles about the crisis over the past two years, the extent of negative sentiment within the Australian community was not clear.

“We felt it was a really crucial process to get a better understanding about what's really going on with news sites, to really see whether or not this sort of attitude is common,” Hayley Cull, director of advocacy and community engagement at Plan International Australia, told Devex.

The audit of comments was undertaken focusing on 39 news reports posted on the Facebook pages of The Australian, ABC News, SBS News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Guardian.

Common misconceptions or poor attitudes relating to the emergency on social media were identified: Islam was to blame for the crisis; Islamic countries should support and resettle refugees; Australia should not get involved, provide aid, or resettle Rohingya refugees; refugees should stay in Bangladesh; and the United Nations cannot be trusted.

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Limiting the analysis to social media sites of major Australian news outlets and this particular case study means that the negative commentary on humanitarian support may just be the tip of the iceberg. But in collating these attitudes and trying to correct them, Plan International is taking a new approach in responding to the challenges social media creates for humanitarian and development responses.

For social media experts, the Rohingya case study provides a clear example of the challenges NGOs are facing in battling negative comments — and the question of whether to engage or not.

Social media challenges

“The biggest challenges with any type of education is ensuring you provide information that is of value to your audience,” Mel Kettle, a social media specialist, explained to Devex. “You need to be able to frame your information in a way that shows what's in it for them, and the positive benefit to the reader or listener of taking the action you want them to take.”


But in a world where there are millions of messages competing for attention every day, Kettle said this can be difficult.

Tim Middlemiss, a strategic consultant for purpose-driven organizations, told Devex that social media requires NGOs to enter into a conversation, on a platform developed for interpersonal connections, with an audience that is used to interacting with and re-interpreting content. And this is a skillset NGOs may not have.

“The skills developed in many NGOs have centered on long-form direct mail, media releases, and 30-second TVCs [television commercials],” he said. “While our heart is in the right place, our execution feels didactic and exclusionary. That, in turn, immediately splits our audience — those who are on board and want to devour everything we have to say, those who are supportive but bored of hearing the same thing, those who aren’t interested and, of course, those who disagree and want to tell you about it.”

The spread of negative comments on social media, Kettle said, is commonly due to fear. “This can be real fear or a perception of [a] fear that might or might not occur.”

And for NGOs, Middlemiss said that it can be difficult to convince someone that their views are incorrect.

“I’ve worked with many NGOs on public fundraising campaigns, and almost invariably someone will mention a false figure of administration costs for that charity,” he said. “It fits that person's belief that the money doesn’t get there, and no graph or clever infographic can convince them otherwise.”

In program-oriented work, Middlemiss said the same challenge exists with social media audiences bringing preconceived notions about poverty and what it looks like, or more insidious cultural and racial stereotypes. And this factors into the way people receive, and dismiss or detract from information.

How to engage

Within an NGO’s own social media channels, engaging with all comments — positive and negative — is important.  

“Not engaging on social media looks like you don't care,” Kettle said. “If people take the time to comment on your social media posts, or reach out to you online, not responding makes them feel as undervalued as when you don't return a phone call.”

And Middlemiss advises that when moderating social media comments, instinct needs to go out the window.

“The first thing to say is that you should have a set of established behaviors for engagements that are public on your page,” he said. “If you decide to act, refer publicly back to those rules and always ensure you’re consistent — even if you agree with the content of a particular comment.”

Being aware of the organization’s brand and responding in the voice of the brand is also important, as is trying to consider things from their point of view.

“Click on their profile and let them be humanized before making the same assumptions about them as they have of your work,” Middlemiss said.

If the same questions and comments are coming up, which may indicate a lack of awareness on the topic, that's a good sign that you need to create content about it, Kettle said.

“If you think it's going to escalate into something nasty, then suggest that you take the discussion offline — the last thing any organization needs is to get into a public slanging match on social media.”

Engaging on external channels

When it comes to engaging on social media channels managed by external organizations, considerations need to be different.

For Middlemiss, the Plan International case study highlighted viewpoints that he believed were deeply ingrained and potentially hard to shake. So engaging is unlikely to change the views of those individuals.

“And we should remember that few people actively read the comments unless something juicy is going on,” he said. “That’s also not to say we should remain silent when someone continues something as deeply misguided as the topics presented by Plan — we have a duty to break up racist consensus.”

Responding to negative comments highlighted in the Rohingya study, Kettle suggests developing a blog post, article, podcast, or all three to address each of the misconceptions. And the study developed by Plan is an avenue into this conversation.

But it is also important to tackle this negative commentary from a wider programming perspective.

“Social media is given too much credit for [being] causative in the social issues we face; in the case of this Plan report, issues of racism and isolationism,” Middlemiss said. “While it may amplify or accelerate some of these problems [racism and isolationism], they are not new and they aren’t going anywhere if we try to tackle them on social media alone.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.