IN an uncharacteristically decisive move, Facebook removed 18 accounts and 52 pages with links to Burma’s military on Monday, citing their gross rights violations and hate propaganda against the Rohingya community.
The social media giant banned key military figures, including its army chief General Min Aung Hlaing, and organisations that have “committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.”
A statement from the company said they “want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions.”
This marks a significant blow for the Tatmadaw (military) who have relied on the social media platform as its predominant means of communicating with the public.
A full list of the pages/people banned from Facebook as per today's announcement: pic.twitter.com/iZGRqO027q
— Victoria Milko (@thevmilko) August 27, 2018
Facebook would often be the first place news releases and announcements were made public, and it provided a direct link between leaders and Burma’s Facebook-using populace.
“The banning on Facebook will have a huge impact,” Director of the Yangon-based think-tank Tampadipa Institute, Khin Zaw Win, told Asian Correspondent.
“It has been a very handy propaganda tool for the military, so the present step undermines them greatly.”
Facebook use is ubiquitous in Burma, making up 92.5 percent of social media use in the country. The explosion of the network is a fairly new phenomenon and people’s inexperience engaging online is often pointed to as one of the reasons the platform is so influential.
Before 2014, most of Burma lived without mobile phones with less than five percent penetration and SIM cards were exorbitantly expensive, pricing most users out of the market. This all changed in the last few years when the price of SIM cards dropped as low as US$1.50, allowing a much greater number of people to buy smartphones.
A United Nations fact-finding mission to Burma said on Monday that “Facebook is the internet” in the country. It is this prevalence that made it the ideal mode of communication for the military wanting to get their message out.
According to Facebook, the pages and accounts that were banned had a collective following of 12 million users, showcasing the sites significant reach.
Well, this is surreal. The current state of a new Facebook account in the name of Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing, accused of overseeing ethnic cleansing, after the original was shut down earlier today. pic.twitter.com/M5qqabnLqW
— Poppy McPherson (@poppymcp) August 27, 2018
Loss of face
To be removed is not only a practical annoyance for key members of the military, it’s also an embarrassment.
“There is also the loss of face, because something like this has never happened to a Commander in Chief,” Khin Zaw Win said. “It’s like being disgraced and humiliated in front of the entire Myanmar population.”
Facebook’s timing on the matter was pertinent. The company’s rebuke came on the same day as a UN report said the treatment of the Rohingya at the hands of the military amounted to genocide and recommended the prosecution of leading generals in the International Criminal Court.
Without their Facebook pages, the accused will find rebutting the UN’s allegations far more difficult.
The report said the Tatmadaw (military) were guilty of “killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages,” and said the army’s tactics were grossly disproportionate to any legitimate security threat.
The report also acknowledged the role of social media in fueling the hostilities that saw over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee across the border to Bangladesh to escape the violence. It described Facebook as a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate” – prime among them being the military.
The platform was used to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment across the country and used to justify the military’s actions through peddling false narratives about what was happening in Rakhine State.
One organisation falsely accused aid agencies of supplying weapons to armed rebels. This story allowed authorities to restrict access of international charities aiming to help those in need.
Numerous posts surfaced saying the Rohingya had burned down their own homes and terrorist groups were responsible for the violence.
Khin Zaw Win told us the military was so reliant on Facebook that they even sent officers to Russia to learn skills needed to exploit social media. Their use of the platform so ingrained with their operations that overseas military attaches would rely on the Facebook pages to keep up to date.
So now their most useful platform has disappeared overnight, what can we expect from the military going forward?
While Facebook is certainly the biggest social media platform in the country, it is far from the only one.
Local version of the social network, Doe Myanmar, has been growing in users and Japanese-owned Viber is dominating the messaging apps market, well ahead of international favourite and Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Burma’s ally China might see the military turn to Chinese made apps like WeChat and Weibo to make their case, Khin Zaw Win suggests.
The army’s own television channel, Myawaddy – which was among the organisations banned by Facebook – may more overtly peddle military messaging, along with state-owned newspapers like the Global New Light of Myanmar. But their scope can’t compare to the pervasive reach of Facebook.
Beyond just propaganda
Facebook’s bold move to take action against those responsible for peddling incendiary material may have outcomes beyond just the stemming of propaganda.
General Min Aung Hlaing’s presidential ambitions are dead, Khin Zaw Win believes. And, while not on Facebook’s ban list, the political path of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi may also suffer by association, especially after her lack of action was highlighted by the UN.
The report criticised the Nobel laureate for not using her position as head of government or “her moral authority to stem or prevent the unfolding events.”
"Rape was part of a military strategy"
"The victims's scares, their tears and stories will stay with me"
— Lotte Leicht (@LotteLeicht1) August 27, 2018
“On the contrary, the civilian authorities [including Aung San Suu Kyi] have spread false narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations, including of the Fact-Finding Mission; and overseen destruction of evidence,” the report reads.
“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
While we will have to wait to see the effects of the Facebook ban on the spread anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, Khin Zaw Win believes the political consequences may be more obvious.
“I have a feeling that Facebook’s banning has a harder impact than any government sanctions could have.”