3/3 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Myanmar protesters residing in Japan demonstrate against Myanmar’s army in Tokyo 2/3
By Fanny Potkin (Reuters) – Myanmar’s armed forces shutting down access to Facebook following the ouster of democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi ends years of tension between the social media company and the most powerful institution in a nation where half the population uses Facebook. On Wednesday, the board banned Facebook Inc (NASDAQ 🙂 until at least Sunday after opponents of the regime began using it to organize. A new civil disobedience page had gained nearly 200,000 followers and the support of Burmese celebrities in the days after the coup, while a related hashtag was used millions of times. “The Tatmadaw views Facebook as its Internet nemesis because it is the dominant communication channel in the country and has been hostile to the military,” Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told Reuters, referring to the country’s military. “As the Burmese people are rapidly moving online to organize a massive campaign of civil disobedience, closing access becomes a top priority.” A company spokeswoman on Thursday urged Myanmar authorities to restore access to Facebook and WhatsApp to the country’s 54 million residents. Facebook will have to decide how to play the delicate balance of protecting democratic politicians and activists versus cooperating with the new regime to restore services, an especially acute example of the political dilemmas facing the company around the world. In nearby Vietnam, for example, Facebook recently acceded to government demands to censor more political criticism to avoid a blackout. The service has mostly avoided shutdowns outside of countries like China, where it has been blocked for a long time, but is currently facing pressure in India, Turkey and elsewhere. In Myanmar, where the company has a small team, Facebook in recent years has engaged with civil rights activists and democratic political parties and shunned the military after receiving strong international criticism for failing to contain online hate campaigns. In 2018, it banned army chief Min Aung Hlaing, now Myanmar’s military ruler, and 19 other senior officials and organizations, and removed hundreds of pages and accounts run by military members for inauthentic coordinated behavior. Before the November elections in Myanmar, Facebook announced that it had removed a network of 70 fake accounts and pages operated by members of the military who had posted positive content about the military or criticized Suu Kyi and her party. A Reuters review earlier this week found dozens of pages and accounts alleging election fraud, the reason given by the military for taking power. Positions started in October and continued after the elections; In the 48 hours before the coup, many of the pages called for a military intervention. After the coup, those pages turned to publications that accused the ousted government of fraud and justified the inauguration, the review showed. Some of the pages published coordinated posts criticizing or threatening politicians like Suu Kyi, as well as journalists and activists. Facebook removed dozens of accounts on Wednesday, shortly before closing them. Reuters could not determine where it came from. And just two days before the coup, the new army-installed information minister, Chit Hlaing, shared a story that was allegedly from Radio Free Myanmar, which Facebook banned after it was used in disinformation campaigns against the Rohingya. The minister was not immediately contacted for comment. By Wednesday, both his account and the post were taken down. An army spokesman did not respond to multiple calls for comment. AS AN ‘INTERNET BAN’ Facebook plays a huge role in Myanmar, where for many residents it is synonymous with the Internet. United Nations investigators say Facebook allowed the platform to be used by radical Buddhist nationalists and members of the military to fuel a campaign of violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority, 700,000 of whom fled an army crackdown in 2017. I In In response, Facebook tried to crack down on hate speech and misinformation and increase partnerships with civilians, sometimes in conflict with the military. The company maintained its central role in the life of the country and the Suu Kyi government regularly announced important initiatives on its Facebook pages. “A ban on Facebook is effectively a ban on the Internet,” Kachin human rights defender Zaw Htun Lat wrote on Twitter Thursday. A Facebook spokeswoman referred to Reuters to an earlier statement by Southeast Asia Policy Director Rafael Frankel that Facebook is “removing misinformation that delegitimizes the outcome of the November elections.” He added that the company is treating Myanmar as an emergency and is using artificial intelligence to restrict content that is likely to violate its rules on hate speech and incitement to violence. At the same time, the military has used Facebook since the coup began. Its “True News” information unit had provided daily updates before Thursday’s close. On Monday, a page was created for the country’s new military president in a matter of hours. Since then, a handful of other official government pages have been taken over by the regime and are running official announcements from the Information Ministry warning against social media “rumors” that could incite unrest and instability. Facebook declined to comment on how it decides who can control official government pages.