Information as a weapon of war: deciphering Myanmar military’s social media strategy

 On February 25th of this year, Facebook made international headlines when it banned the Myanmar military (also known as “Tatmadaw”) from using its Facebook and Instagram platforms. “Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban,” the tech giant explained in a statement. On February 1st, Myanmar’s military junta, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, seized back power in a coup. The event abruptly put an end to Myanmar’s transition to democracy that began in the late 2000s. That did not come as a surprise for a certain number of scholars. As some of them explain, the nationwide peace process in Myanmar has been an example of “illiberal peacebuilding, which aims to contain rather than to resolve conflicts” (Moo Kham, 2021). Initially peaceful, the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement that emerged as a result of the February events has gotten gradually more organized and citizens have started to take up arms. Opponents to the junta have formed a shadow National Unity Government, seeking international legitimacy. In parallel, Peoples’ Defence Forces (PDFs), grassroots militias opposed to the military have emerged across the country. Last September 7th, the NUG declared a “people’s defensive war » against the Tatmadaw, “urging citizens across the country to revolt”.

© Lydia Ortiz / Patrick Rafanan for Wired

But the war is not only raging in the capital Yangon or in the jungles of Chin state, heavily shelled last week by the junta forces. Warfare, over the last couple of years, has globally expanded into cyberspace. Facebook’s ban cannot but illustrate how social media propaganda is an integral part of the Tatmadaw’s military strategy. Studying in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, a – more or less – safe haven for Burmese political activists, I have come in contact with the shadow world of anti-military resistance. Several of my friends fled the country and seek to back the civil-disobedience movement from Thailand. Support can take several forms. Some send monthly remittances for the PDFs to buy food or weapons (the transaction is well-organized: after each payment, my friend receives pictures of the bullets his money contributed to purchase). Others monitor the internet closely, seeking to gather intelligence about the Tatmadaw’s movements and strategy. Such information can also inform local or international NGOs’ humanitarian needs assessments. If cyberspace is a battlefield, then countering the Tatmadaw’s virtual propaganda is also a crucial aspect of the resistance against oppression and tyranny. I spoke to Sathaporn*, social media monitor for several years to learn more about Myanmar military’s social media strategy.

M: To what extent can we talk about a social media strategy on the part of the junta?

S: We know that the military hires computer professional personnel and is equipped with a sophisticated mass surveillance arsenal. The Special Intelligence Department is spreading anti-democratic rumors using fake Facebook accounts. They are mostly posting anti-protest content and propagating hate speech against the civil disobedience movement.

M: How do you know that such accounts are fake?

S: First of all, they do not share a lot of private information. Users that do not have profile pictures, for instance, trigger our suspicion. And after a while, you realize that certain profiles are all re-sharing each other’s posts. That is called “inauthentic coordination”. Such accounts are just created to spur polarization among public opinion. Oftentimes, Tatmadaw-run fake accounts start with gossip and then gradually post more and more anti-protest messages. One of their methods to discredit the pro-democracy movement is to attack the private lives of anti-military individuals with a litany of lies and humiliating content.

M: What are the main messages or narratives used by the military?

S: I do not have a straight answer to that question. It is too early to say, all the more so as narratives are collectively created. They emerge from all social-media users’ interactions. But the primary aim of the military is to confuse people so they stop supporting the pro-democracy movement and turn to the junta’s side. In order to do so, they are using (sometimes making-up) many supporting stories. For instance, the Tatmadaw is using the initials of the civil-disobedience movement (CDM) to frame it as a “country-destroying movement”. The PDFs are also depicted as “criminals”. Another aspect of the military’s strategy is that they are trying to overflow social media with messages in accordance with their narratives. Online, the spread of an element can easily cover up other true information.

M: How effective is this social media propaganda? Why is it dangerous?

S: Not to look down upon the general population, but in Myanmar, most social media users have little media literacy and are therefore sensitive to misinformation and disinformation. Information can be easily manipulated by malevolent actors. On top of that, most people get their news on Facebook. The internet arrived quite late in Myanmar, and when it spread in the 2010s, Facebook was already a well-established social media platform offering an increasing number of services. For many people in Myanmar, Facebook became the internet.

M: What is the state of information in the country now? How are trustworthy journalists working amidst turmoil?

S: Right now, in Myanmar, there is a total information disorder. The internet is regularly being cut off. Many journalists are unable to work properly, even though many blacklisted media are still operating underground. Citizen journalism is coming up at the forefront, but this type of reporting has inherent editorial problems. Citizen journalists are not abiding by the same ethical and deontological standards as mainstream media. Their activities, however essential they may be, are at times closer to activism than news production.

M: Several media reports speak of the use of information as a “weapon of war”. What do you think of that formula? Is it accurate or solely sensationalistic?

S: There is an intention on the part of the military to harm, criminalize, and suppress democracy supporters. To that extent, we can talk about the weaponization of information in Myanmar. The junta seeks to create obstacles to important information flows. For instance, by blocking access to media for democratic leaders or by replacing the press council with new members chosen by the Tatmadaw.”

In general, all parties are competing for attention in a survival struggle. But the fight is uneven. On one side, the Leviathan in all its might. On the other, overworked social media analysts with severe coffee addiction. And journalists. Stressed, undercover, in hiding. All unconditionally committed to the triumph of justice and verity. All avoiding CCTV cameras. Stories of grief, loss, exile. But above all, extraordinary resilience. 

Here’s to all my friends resisting oppressive regimes. “In times of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”**

*To preserve the informant’s anonymity, their names have been changed.

**It is still unclear, whether this quote should be attributed to George Orwell or Antonio Gramsci

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