“Even Facebook Gears Up for the 2020 General Elections in Myanmar” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/70, 23 August 2019

On 21 August 2019, social media giant Facebook claimed that it was ‘preparing for the 2020 General Election’ in Myanmar. For Facebook users and groups in Myanmar, this message had great significance. As the most popular social media platform in the country, Facebook is essentially the Internet for the majority of Myanmar people who are on-line.
Facebook’s claim of preparing for next year’s elections accompanied its announcement that it had removed 89 accounts, 107 pages, 15 groups, and 5 Instagram accounts originating in Myanmar. According to the company, these accounts, pages, and groups were engaged in coordinated behaviour under false pretenses. The company’s move is not unprecedented, as it has been taking down such accounts, pages, and groups since August 2018.
Elsewhere, negative and black campaigns on social media sites such as Facebook are on the rise in various contexts, especially when elections draw near and during elections themselves. This problem has apparently led Facebook commit to free and fair elections, and to action. Recently, it took strong stances against unscrupulous election-rated Facebooking behaviour before and during the Indonesian and Indian elections of April and April-May 2019, respectively.
In the case of Myanmar, Facebook’s primary focus has been on hate speech, following international criticism of the way that the platform has been used in anti-Rohingya campaigns. However, having learned of the ‘negative’ use of its platform to influence elections in other contexts, Facebook seems determined to do better in Myanmar.

Facebook’s recent actions and the accompanying statement come in the immediate wake of the announcement by the Myanmar Press Council on 15 August 2019 that it had found 48 Facebook pages, with millions of followers, engaged in stealing news and pictures from other sources and in producing fake news. The council also announced on 27 May 2019 that it had found 31 Facebook pages engaged in similar behaviour.

Facebook’s recent announcement has added an extra dimension to preparations for the 2020 general elections in Myanmar, in which different political groups will definitely use the country’s most popular social media platform for unscrupulous electoral purposes.

Although Facebook’s removal of Myanmar accounts may scare away prospective unscrupulous and unauthentic users and groups, it is impossible to rely on the company alone, when election campaigns inevitably are messy political, social, and even cultural events. Nor does Facebook have a domestic political mandate, let alone recourse to law.

Facebook has been working with partners in Myanmar to promote digital literacy. However, individual Facebooking by ordinary users and organized Facebooking are two different things, especially when the latter seeks to influence elections.  The Myanmar population’s increased digital literacy will hardly dissuade those individuals and groups who use Facebook for inauthentic coordinated behaviour, as long as the platform gives them publicity and the ability to communicate to large numbers of people.

Unscrupulous individuals and groups in Myanmar are doubtless now preparing to avoid the removal of their Facebook accounts in the future. The ‘fight’ between Facebook and some Facebookers goes on. Developing the most effective ways to deal with unscrupulous organized Facebooking for electoral purposes tailored to contexts like that of Myanmar is at best a work in progress.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.