Myanmar’s Battle on Social Media
Dr Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

In the present century, social media has become a battleground to provide authenticity and validation for oneself as well as to produce hatred and discontent for others. Since the rise of the Arab Spring, the role of social media in spreading democratic norms and values has been highlighted. However, in the prevailing conflicts around the world, the countries are using social media as a tool to disseminate propaganda, create fear and for ‘information warfare’. For instance, during the COVID-19 crisis, social media was used to instill fear and spread misinformation. Similarly, as the military rule continues to take to spread its tentacles in Myanmar, the military is using social media for propaganda, creating fear and for spreading misinformation. On the other hand, the opposition parties and Ethnic Armed Organisations who are leading the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) are using the social media to propagate their point of view.

With the overthrow of democratically elected leaders on 01 February 2021, the military took control of the internet services, mobile services and important television channels. For instance, Facebook was banned in February 2021 itself after the coup. However, the platform continued to be used via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) according to the Facebook data. In addition to the violent battle on the ground, a parallel battle is being fought on social media. The military is using fake accounts to discredit opponents and convince the public that the overthrow of the civilian government was justified and as per the Constitution’s provisions.

The military assigned teams of soldiers to conduct "information combat” drives. These drives are aimed to spread the military’s view, monitor dissenters and attack them online. In addition, they portrayed the opposing civilians as traitors. The soldiers who defected from the military to join opposition forces gave a detailed account of these media drives (many chose to remain anonymous). They further stated that the information combat drive was coordinated by the military's Public Relations and Information Production Unit, aka Ka Ka Com. For this purpose female soldiers were specifically staffed who were not allowed in combat roles.

In addition, Reuters also reviewed two Telegram groups with soldiers in them. They noted that they contained photos and social media details of individuals suspected of being “watermelons" — pro-military on the outside but secretly supporting opposition forces. Reuters reviewed thousands of social media posts in 2021 and found that about 200 military personnel used their accounts to post messages or videos alleging fraud in the election and denouncing anti-coup protesters as traitors. The military has also warned the soldiers and their families not to post content critical of the military or in any way supportive of opposition forces or Aung San Suu Kyi.

In addition to fake accounts and posts, fake statements and letters were circulated. In a recent incident, following the call for a “silent strike” on 10 December, a fake statement claiming to be issued by the National League for Democracy (NLD) surfaced, urging the public not to observe the silent strike. Further, a fake letter was leaked during the month of December claiming to be issued by Suu Kyi, which stated that neither the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) nor the National Unity Government (NUG) is entitled to use the name of the National Unity Government (NLD).

Social media giants also noted these activities. For instance, Rafael Frankel, Facebook's Director of Public Policy, Asia Pacific, informed Reuters that they had detected almost 98 percent of the hate speech, which they removed from its platform in Myanmar. This is not the first time Facebook has taken down accounts of military leaders. Since 2018, Facebook has taken down hundreds of accounts and pages linked to the Myanmar military after the New York Times reported that military officials were behind fake pages inciting violence against the Rohingya.

In addition, YouTube monitored its content for “violative” content and terminated two pro-military channels flagged by Reuters, and TikTok removed thousands of Myanmar accounts that breached its guidelines. Even Twitter stated that it was maintaining vigilance against any manipulation. A recent report by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, titled “Parliamentarians at Risk: Reprisals against opposition MPs in Southeast Asia in 2021,” also highlighted the issue of misinformation being spread at a large scale in Myanmar and other South-East Asian countries.

While the Myanmar military is being condemned for imposing excessive controls and restrictions over internet and social media, the opposition forces are using the same to disseminate information and gather support worldwide. According to Dr Anuradha Rao, Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) social media is being used as sites of solidarity and resistance by the CDM. The rise of the CDM was facilitated by social media as the activists and journalists posted real-time videos and photos of the military’s oppressive acts. Likewise, the rise of the People Defence Forces (PDFs) was much facilitated by social media and the apps such as Facebook, Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram. At few instances, the opposition forces are also using similar methods as used by the military to make their voices heard. They created duplicate accounts to fill "Twitter teams” and made anti-junta hashtags trend. Moreover, soldiers who defected from the military also launched online support organisations for other defectors. For instance, Nyi Thuta launched an online support organisation called “People's Soldiers” for military personnel who wanted to defect.

Freedom House’s annual report in 2019, "Freedom on the Net" stated that worldwide governments are using social media to influence public opinion. However, the same is also being used by individuals and regimes to instill fear and as a tool for propaganda. In 2021, the report noted that global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year. The 2021 report also stated that Myanmar noted a 14-point decline in its score, the largest decline since it registered. The internet and social media must be used to express freedom of speech and expression, share information and opinions, promote interactions and most importantly, be equally accessible to everyone. The silver lining lies in the curbing spread of misinformation and propaganda to effectively use the internet and social media as a powerful tool of information sharing and interactions. The onus lies in the hands of the Myanmar military leaders to provide free and equitable use of internet, remove internet restrictions and stop imposing internet shutdowns.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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