Myanmar this week experienced the bloodiest crackdown since the military staged its coup on February 1, as security forces killed at least 18 protestors across the country on Sunday. As the situation continues to escalate on the ground, digital platforms, namely social media including Facebook and Twitter, have emerged as the battleground for pro-democracy activists to coordinate their actions, get the latest news from the frontline, and galvanize support from the international community.
When the military banned social media, many flocked to download virtual private networks. The number of VPN downloads surged by 7,200% after February 4, according to data from independent research group Top10VPN.
While Facebook has begun to weigh in on what amounts to be a rather delicate topic, other global tech giants like Google and Twitter are yet to publicly comment. Google was taking down some content and accounts that either violate company rules or the executive order issued by US President Joe Biden on February 11 sanctioning those that were accountable for the coup.
Local activists told KrASIA that although social media and digital communications have become an integral part of the lives of Burmese people, the at times indifferent reactions of global tech firms could further worsen the situation.
“They [the military] have become more violent with each day that passed. Over 1,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested, charged, or sentenced since the coup began,” Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung told KrASIA. “The tech firms’ lack of stance and action further emboldens those who commit such crimes against the people of Myanmar. They are complicit through their inaction,” she added.
Facebook’s proactive response
Declaring the situation “an emergency”, Facebook said on February 11 that it would significantly reduce the distribution of all content run by the military and suspend the junta from sending content removal requests.
The social network also took down the military’s official page “Tatmadaw True News Information Team Page” on February 21 saying that it violates community standards that prohibit the “incitement of violence and coordinating harm,” Reuters reported. On February 24, the firm also banned the army from using Facebook or Instagram and excluded related businesses from advertising on its platforms.
“We have also reduced the distribution of content on at least 23 pages and profiles controlled or operated by the Tatmadaw so fewer people see them,” Facebook said in its blogpost. The company is basing its efforts on the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s 2019 report, which is laying down the economic interests of the Tatmadaw, along with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “These bans will remain in effect indefinitely,” it added.
Justice For Myanmar’s Yadanar Maung still believes that Facebook’s actions fall short and it should pull down all pages of military-linked businesses. “A comprehensive response is needed to ensure the military does not continue to profit off their platform,” she said.
Aung Kaung Myat, an activist and graduate student at the University of Hong Kong worries that the Tatmadaw would still maintain its presence through unofficial channels on social media. “The military did not shut down the internet completely, but orders temporary internet disruptions from time to time,” he said.
He thinks that the regime will realize that cutting down the internet isn’t sustainable for them to exert their power and influence and that they will resort to disinformation tactics, using troll accounts. “The cyberspace allows them to write their own narrative both online and offline, which is beyond the traditional channels such as radio and newspaper,” he said.
Misinformation on Twitter
Shortly after Facebook was blocked, people migrated to Twitter, although it was also banned the day after. The platform has been vital for locals to galvanize support from the international community. Hashtags including #AungSanSuuKyigovernment, #RejectTheMilitary, #SayNoToMyanmarMilitaryCoup, #WeNeedDemocracy, and #Myanmarcoup have become trending topics in the country and the region, garnering more than 160,000 tweets, as of February 2. #Mar2Coup, a new hashtag with details of the ongoing protests, was quickly reproduced over 750,000 times within a day.
But plenty of questionable information and several government-linked accounts also emerged. A report by local media Frontier Myanmar mentioned the example of a Twitter video that showed how a group of thugs was being dropped in a neighborhood “to bring trouble.” The video, however, displayed no signs of thugs, but residents equipped with sticks and bats to safeguard their community.
The Twitter account believed to be using by Ministry of Information was closed itself after social media users pointed out that the account was following porn models and 18+ accounts. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/G8WnNV4QIt
— soe zeya tun (@soezeya) February 25, 2021
Meanwhile, a handful of military-related accounts such as @myanmar_moi and @myanmaritv are still active. A Twitter spokesperson told KrASIA in an emailed response that the company has reviewed the @myanmar_moi account and that it doesn’t violate its policies. “Just to be clear, if any account—regardless of its intent or political views—violates our policies, we will take enforcement action pursuant to the Twitter rules, which govern permissible content on the service globally,” the spokesperson said.
Twitter didn’t respond on a question if it has planned other measures to combat misinformation.
“We call for these and all other Twitter accounts to be suspended and for Twitter to proactively prevent the military from using their platform,” urged Yadanar Maung. She warned that otherwise, there might be more psychological warfare and public relations. “Global tech firms have a responsibility to human rights and must cut all business with the Myanmar military regime,” she emphasized.
Where to draw the line?
Activist Aung Kaung Myat believes that banning all the military-linked pages on social media might make it harder for scholars or the general public to “monitor, document, and archive their wrongdoings.” Some might rely on these pages to get information from the other side.
He agrees that pages that have helped to finance the military should be taken down immediately, but that tech firms need to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and the military’s human rights violations.
“Tech companies must be proactive and stand with the people of Myanmar who are out on the streets every day, risking their lives to overcome the military’s brutal oppression and violations of freedom of expression,” responds Yadanar Maung. “Businesses that have capabilities to counter the military’s internet shutdowns, such as Facebook, Starlink, or OneWeb, must do so.” Both Starlink and OneWeb offer satellite internet access to remote places across the world.
As of publication, Myanmar has experienced the sixteenth night of internet blackouts from 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., according to internet monitoring service NetBlocks.