On a hot summer day in Yangon, J. Paing never could have imagined that he was about to experience one of the most excruciating episodes of his life. “The moment of witnessing protestors being shot dead by security forces was heartbreaking. Even though I am an experienced journalist, I couldn’t help but burst into tears. I was so upset that I couldn’t do anything because I had to run and hide,” he told KrASIA.
J. Paing witnessed the shooting in Yangon’s Tamwe township, which once brimmed with birdsong and where padauk flowers bloomed to form canary-yellow canopies every April, during the Burmese New Year. But things have changed. Physical and digital suppression had finally reached J. Paing’s doorstep. Like many other journalists, he went into hiding. His family was interrogated by police officers who wanted to know where he was. J. Paing also resigned from the Myanmar Press Council in late February to protest the increasingly restrictive state of press freedom in the country.
Nearly five months after the coup, at least 873 people have been killed and 6,273 arrested, charged, or sentenced during a series of violent crackdowns, according to data published on June 21 by a local human rights group called Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. “The killing scene has haunted me for almost two weeks,” said J. Paing, the founder and editor of Myanmar Pressphoto Agency, an organization whose members produce documentary and news photos.
While the people in J. Paing’s organization are professional photojournalists, an entire nation wielding smartphones has been recording the happenings around them and uploading media files to platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, opening a virtual arena of confrontation where the narrative of post-coup violence is shaped online. Some post clips of people who are beaten, arrested, or even killed; others pledge to defy military rule, like a former beauty queen who took up arms. Armed men who are affiliated with the junta issue threats or attempt to soften their own image. What’s true for everyone is this: the horrors are experienced and re-experienced through social media feeds.
The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. (Che Guevara)
We must Win 💪💪💪 pic.twitter.com/iHEDhF314p
— Htar Htet Htet (@HtarHtetHtet2) May 11, 2021
With large-scale demonstrations dissipating on the streets, anti-coup protesters have leveraged social media to galvanize support and amplify their voices. Their weapons in cyberspace are a trove of images and videos, hashtags, illustrations, memes, and virality. In this scrum for attention, the military regime harnesses the same tactics to spread hate speech, meanwhile holding the power to ban certain social media platforms and order mobile internet shutdowns.
“On Facebook, there is a rise of propaganda where many actors have tried to coordinate pro-military messages on the platform. Although Facebook de-platformed some of the military leaders and the state media, other unofficial pages have risen to spread the pro-military agenda,” said Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of digital rights group Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, or MIDO. “On Twitter, Myanmar’s anti-coup users have learned to use hashtags to shake up the narratives in a bid to send messages to the international community. They are more critical, and there is an intersection of different views. While on TikTok, we have seen many uniformed soldiers and police using the platform owing to its limited content moderation,” she added.
Myanmar soldiers use TikTok to deliver death threats
Like hundreds of millions of users around the world, many people in Myanmar are on TikTok, which is one of the top 15 most downloaded apps in the country. Mingling among fun videos that are part of hashtag challenges is a hate speech minefield planted by individuals who support the military. There were at least 800 pro-military videos containing explicit threats against protestors as of the end of February, according to MIDO.
In one video, a user with the handle “Yekoko119″ threatened to “shoot and throw grenades” at supporters of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, which he described in a profanity-laced rant as people who “can all die,” according to a report by The Guardian. Although some of the videos have been removed from the platform, many others remain online. “The video has circulated widely, and even though TikTok took down the content, the audio is still available in other TikTok videos. The videos sometimes resonate with the brutal crackdown of the security forces on the streets,” said Htaike Htaike Aung.
In one video seen by KrASIA, an armed police officer in fatigues attempted to justify his actions and beg for public support. “You must despise us. Sometimes, we despise ourselves too. We have to get up at 4:00 a.m. and stand under the scorching sun all day,” the officer said. “You must have been tired. Please take a rest and let us have a nap. Our eyes hurt [from lack of sleep], and we are standing here without knowing why. I always pray that after this, you return to your family. My family living far away worry about me now.”
Htaike Htaike Aung added that TikTok has not been proactively enforcing its community standards. “Unlike Facebook and Twitter, it is very challenging for researchers and fact-checkers like us to look at the content in an effective manner. While Facebook provides fact-checking tools, there is no such tool on TikTok. We have to scroll through all the videos manually. It is very time-consuming to document, archive, and analyze the videos.” she explained. “Of course, there is a certain hashtag that we could follow, but even the system could get it wrong sometimes. For example, when we search the Myanmar army on TikTok, we see videos of the South Korean boy band BTS pop up. It’s funny in a way, but it shows how difficult it is for researchers to analyze the audiovisual content.”
Facebook groups brigade to report content
Unlike TikTok, Facebook has performed a slew of actions since February in response to a flood of charged posts from Myanmar, from banning the military from using Facebook and Instagram to taking down content that voices support for violent acts committed by security forces or protestors, according to one of its blog posts.
Not even two years ago, Facebook was criticized by the United Nations for playing a “determining role” in spreading hate speech that fueled the 2017 mass expulsion of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state as well as the death of thousands of Rohingya. The consequences of the platform’s algorithmic content recommendations and inconsistencies in upholding community standards are now again under the scrutiny of digital rights groups. A report released by Global Witness on June 23 says Facebook’s page recommendations amplify content that violated its own content policies on violence and misinformation.
The rights group created a new Facebook account and entered “Tatmadaw”—the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar—in Burmese. A military fan page showed up as a search result. After the group clicked the “Like” button, Facebook’s algorithm recommended many similar pages that contained an array of misinformation and hateful content, including false claims of widespread election fraud, calls for violence against civilians, and posts that said one young woman had to be captured “dead or alive” because users suspected that she committed arson.
“The information we are exposed to online is controlled by algorithms that filter our newsfeeds and choose content for us. Social media companies such as Facebook have a vested interest in keeping us online for as long as possible, in order to show us as many ads as possible and hoover up as much information about us as possible, the better to target us with future ads. So their algorithms prioritize showing us content they feel will engage us,” the group said in the report.
Despite the loopholes, J. Paing also noted users—whether they are pro-military or anti-junta—now engage in brigading to report the accounts of people who do not share their views. “We often receive death threats from military supporters. Most of the comments contain foul language, which sometimes urges the military to arrest us. They also report our [Myanmar Pressphoto Agency] page to Facebook, which affects our page engagement and traffic,” he explained.
J. Paing was surprised to discover that this was collective and organized, and that the behavior exists on both ends of the ideological spectrum. “There are specific groups with thousands of members that report certain content to Facebook. While they claim themselves as anti-coup supporters, they sometimes report pages that go against their political belief [even if the disagreements are minor]. We used to be one of their targets. They think that we are spies supporting the military,” he added.
Groups that attempt to take down pages and content exist alongside Facebook’s content moderation algorithm, which is meant to parse posts and deal with takedowns and account bans automatically, but there are shortfalls. “The machine learning algorithm is not developed enough to understand the nuances, irony, or context,” said Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, chief investigator at the Digital Media Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology. “A lot of hate or incitement of violence is conveyed in a way that is not overt. It’s the same with satirical or hateful content,” she said.
These issues may just be the tip of a gruesome iceberg. What worries researchers like Matamoros-Fernández most is how quickly misinformation and hate speech can be scaled across different platforms. “Users don’t only use one social media platform; the cross-platform dynamic is quite complex. We might lose the context and original purpose or intention of the post after it is reposted,” she said.
For J. Paing, comments containing hate speech are the least of his worries. Fundamentally, social media channels provide a valuable form of outreach for his photo agency, one where he and his fellow photojournalists not only present visual documentation but also become advocates. “Facebook is an effective place for people to voice their dissatisfaction towards the evil regime,” he said. “We can only enjoy media freedom by overthrowing the military regime. We will continue to document this historical revolution on the platform until victory comes,” he added.
Matamoros-Fernández believes it is important to view social media platforms as part of a readily mediated world. “Social media is in conversation with mainstream media too. I don’t think we have to blame specific platforms, but the problem is that our world and the media are so polarized. It’s a combination of mainstream media and social media that contribute to these behaviors,” she said.
Read this: As Myanmar’s military resorts to violence, Big Tech is dragged into the conflict