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Daily Digest | The Book of 3 Billion

Written by The Uptake Published on     3 mins read

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Facebook, Myanmar, and some ugly truths.

Hi there. It’s Brady again.

This note is different from our normal blasts. It’s longer than usual because today’s newsletter touches upon a serious matter that has many layers and severe ramifications. But before we get into today’s highlighted story, I’d like to hear from you: What do you want to read more of? Whose voices would you like to see KrASIA feature? What matters to you? Drop me a note at [email protected]. I want to hear from you.

Now, on to today’s note.

The first time I set foot in Yangon—unplanned, with no preparation, flown in from Bangkok on a whim with friends—someone told me there were only two ATMs installed in the city. Worse yet, on any given day, at least one was broken. Fortunately, I had enough US dollars with me, and money-changers were easy to locate and generally fair. The first kyat bills I touched were memorable: worn out to the point where many frayed or even looked ancient, some smelled funky, and it was common enough to handle banknotes that might have been stained with… blood? (Or betel nut chew. Probably betel nut chew.)

In the years that followed, Yangon was visibly different each time I was there again. It’s an observation shared by people who zipped in and out of Myanmar for work, staying a few weeks each time, returning several months later. Malls and condos went up and replaced dilapidated abodes. SIM cards and mobile data got a lot cheaper. Returnees started businesses of every sort. The pace of change and wealth of potential were unmatched. Yangon was still a rough town, but by and large, people’s lives were getting better, or at least many felt that way.

I met people in Yangon, Mandalay, and other parts of Myanmar. There were metalheads, punks, historians, radical Buddhist monks, gentle imams, community organizers, antiquity experts, generals, and government officials. We connected through Facebook, which almost functioned like a census of the country—at least the parts that were online—and people almost always pinged me back, excited about a new connection.

It’s cliché to speak of generous hospitality offered to outsiders, but on the whole, that was my experience. I stay connected with acquaintances through Facebook. Then, eventually, some began to post questionable content about Rohingya Muslims. You already know how this part of the story ends.

Now, exactly five months after the military ousted the elected government of Myanmar, I’m thinking about how Facebook is as much a place of division as it once was a way to link up with people who felt comfortable enough to be frank—even when they were speaking with someone who fundamentally disagreed with their core beliefs. The same goes for TikTok and Twitter.

Myanmar’s conflict isn’t just limited to what goes on in the streets, within its borders. There is an unignorable virtual dimension that you may have encountered on your feeds too. Soldiers issue death threats. Protestors join armed resistance and post “hero” shots of themselves. Online “brigades” form to take down content posted by the other side. Misinformation and disinformation are rife.

On Monday, Facebook hit a USD 1 trillion valuation. It has 3 billion monthly users across its original social network, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Information moves fast, boosted by Facebook’s content recommendation algorithms.

Genuine connections, ugly truths, and falsehoods intermingle on every major platform where users generate content. Myanmar today is a case where the consequences of this fact are playing out. Are our tools still just what we make them to be, no more, no less?

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