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05 Voices of Inclusion




Myanmar and Malaysia


01 02 04

Innovation Category


Inclusive communications and social listening in divided contexts.


A multi-faceted initiative to counter hate speech and intolerance, funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It builds from social listening and research to understand the root causes of hate speech and intolerance in order to design appropriate advocacy and training initiatives.

Main Features of the Populist Context

For Myanmar, the main features of the national populist context, with the two core elements of populism – anti-elitism and anti-pluralism – and the additional feature of the disregard of facts, are described elsewhere in this report (see case study 08).

In Malaysia, by contrast, the May 2018 election has been described as ademocratic disruption [standing] apart in a year of populist nationalism’. The Barisan National coalition that had ruled since 1957 lost power, ending the dominance of ‘communal race-based politics’. There was real optimism of a ‘New Malaysia’ following this seismic change, and that the equal rights of previously marginalised groups would finally be recognised and respected, but, one year after the elections, major concerns were still being raised around the continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms. In addition to the failure around progressing promised institutional and political reforms, increasing ethnic and religious intolerance continues to threaten stability, and both political leaders and the Malaysian public have noted growing concern about incendiary rhetoric concerning race and religion. 

The Malaysian government has an important role to play in curbing ‘hate speech’ and other forms of intolerance, but needs to do this through policy solutions that do not restrict speech, are aligned with international standards and law, and focus not only on criminal measures but also positive initiatives to ‘address discrimination and conflict in society and to promote tolerance and intercultural understanding’. This raises interesting questions about the roles and expectations of new political leaders in ‘post-populist’ contexts, where the effects of social divides perpetuated by the previous leaders are still present. 

Moreover, the looming threat of populist politics is still present, with the fact that the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition’s electoral victory was actually dubbed as a struggle against “a corrupt and entrenched Umno and Barisan Nasional elite, who, through excessive and large-scale corruption, weak governance and the mismanagement of the economy, greatly harmed the livelihood of the people and ruined Malaysia’s standing among its peers” (the anti-elitism core element). It remains to be seen whether this would be mere rhetoric or an actual basis for greater equality and change.

Role of Digital Media

Digital technology provides opportunities for well-organised and politically-motivated actors–– populist or otherwise––to quickly and effectively spread negative narratives and hate speech about their targets.. However, the public nature of social media also creates new opportunities for civil society organisations and activists to proactively listen, research and design appropriate responses to this harmful content, as well as to understand how and through whom ‘hate speech’ emerges and spreads. 

Big corporate platforms such as Facebook need to act to remove and decelerate the spread of harmful narratives and hate speech online. Yet they are often unwilling or unable to recognise the individuals and groups best equipped to monitor and flag where and how the harmful content is developing and spreading. There is a catch 22 here: these platforms demand or insist on transparency about who the sources identifying and flagging harmful content are, yet it is this very lack of visibility which not only protects them from risk, but also allows them to be effective. In this context, international civil society organisations can be critical intermediaries between the formal and the structured workings of the private sector on the one hand, and the informal and fluid workings of civil society actors on the other.

Main Features of the Innovation

Voices of Inclusion is a multi-faceted initiative to counter hate speech and intolerance, incorporating a wide range of advocacy and training initiatives to combat stigmatisation, prejudice and to empower marginalised communities in Myanmar and Malaysia. It is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The main features of the innovation include:

  • These activities are founded on evidentiary and analytical research aimed at isolating “root causes” of hate speech and intolerance in both countries. ARTICLE 19 is at the early stages of carrying out listening and attitudinal research to understand the fears, prejudices and other societal factors that contribute to hate speech and intolerance, and how negative narratives, harmful stereotypes, and hate speech develop and spread through social networks. 
  • The research will examine how these messages are heard by and in different communities, and the role and influence of different political and social actors in perpetuating them. The research methodology will draw from the experience of previous “listening research”, such as that conducted by researchers affiliated with the Myanmar Media and Society (M.MAS) Project. 
  • This process will deliver insights to inform the design of future advocacy strategies, ranging from ‘community influencer’ level technical advisory approaches with private data and tech sector companies/platforms to national and global level policy work with political, governmental and multilateral stakeholders. 

The key elements of the process are:

  • Applying sociological and anthropological research methodologies to a general understanding of the root causes of hate speech and intolerance. 
  • Cross-sectoral collaboration between international NGOs, civil society organisations, academics, and local researchers. 
  • Staging of project activities to allow for in-depth research to influence the design and implementation of advocacy and training activities. 
  • Using dual methodologies to generate insights on social attitudes and influences. In addition to the social listening research described above, ARTICLE 19 will—through an adjacent project—use traditional market research-style surveys carried out by professional companies or consultants to test the efficacy of messages promoting inclusion and tolerance.

2020 update:

Research activities aimed at illuminating the root causes of hate speech and intolerance draw heavily on focus groups discussion and in-person interviews, so have been delayed due to COVID-19 and are expected for both countries later in 2020. Research so far has focused on the tenor of online discourse. ARTICLE 19 will then tailor and roll out further project activities, including hate speech counter-messaging campaigns, media grants, and youth trainings, which draw on this research and analysis.

While the world was in lockdown in March 2020, ARTICLE 19 produced a global policy briefing on freedom of expression and the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first major reports looking at the human rights impact of the pandemic. It focused specifically on issues relating to misinformation and hate speech.

With Voices for Inclusion, ARTICLE 19 has used this briefing as a baseline for analysing developments in Myanmar and Malaysia. Among other issues, the organisation has led advocacy on the Internet shutdown in western Myanmar, the homeland of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, as well as hate speech targeting Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.

Key Takeaways

  1. Social listening is a huge asset and resource for ICSOs, but local partners and academics with local knowledge are best positioned do this. They are able to monitor dialogue and conversations in native languages, have very localised linkages, and can use or adapt their monitoring methods and tactics around contingent contextual risks. ICSOs should resource professional psychosocial support for partners such as individuals and groups or organisations engaged at the front-lines of these challenging contexts. Providing the space
    and support for them to perform requires these longer-term commitments to resilience. This should be part of the reciprocal pact for accessing and using the data and insights for which they are taking the risks to deliver.

  2. Taking time to listen and understand social attitudes and narratives before designing an advocacy strategy is critical, but public messaging in and of itself is not enough. It needs to be part of a more comprehensive approach which includes advocacy with the actors and leaders––in both political and social sectors––who influence the perpetuation of harmful and negative narratives and stereotypes. Civil society organisations need to find effective ways to convert some of these actors, such as religious leaders, into advocacy champions capable of building positive and personalised understandings with their followers.

  3. When it comes to sourcing and monitoring data for advocacy work, it is important to embrace and accommodate informal methods, processes and ways of working with local partners. As shown elsewhere, this model also ‘does not look much like a standard civil society process of researching, reflecting, and advocating’.

Innovation Categorisation

As of 2020, we have categorised this as an experimental emerging, adjacent innovation. Still in the process of being implemented at a very early stage of implementation, it involves incremental use of research, survey and monitoring tools and tactics to ultimately connect important adjacent audiences such as private data and digital platforms like Facebook with insights from actors they do not either recognise or work with.

Innovating Organisation

ARTICLE19 works for a world where all people everywhere can freely express themselves and actively engage in public life without fear of discrimination. Two interlocking freedoms – the freedom to speak and the freedom to know – set the foundation for all its work, and when either come under threat, ARTICLE19 responds with one voice, through courts of law, through global and regional organisations, and through civil society wherever it is present. ARTICLE19 has worked across the Asia Pacific region for more than 20 years, with team members across Southeast Asia, including in Myanmar and Malaysia. 

Innovation Report     2019