May 27, 2023

Facebook said Wednesday that it banned Myanmar’s military from its platforms weeks after the country’s fragile democratic government was overthrown in a military coup.

The move, which also discourages military-owned companies from advertising on Facebook, has plunged the social network more directly into post-coup politics in Myanmar. The decision left no question unanswered that the company was on the side of a pro-democracy movement against a military government that had abruptly seized power.

Facebook acted after years of criticism over how the Myanmar military used the website, including to incite hatred against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Since the coup earlier this month that ousted civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and returned Myanmar to full military rule, the military has repeatedly banned the internet and blocked access to major social media sites.

But even when the generals took action to block Facebook, they continued to use the platform as a channel for spreading propaganda. One of the first statements by the coup leader, Major General Min Aung Hlaing, after the takeover was posted on the military’s official Facebook page.

The social network later removed this page and another state TV network page. Official reports by high-ranking Myanmar military leaders linked to the violence against the Rohingya have also been removed. In 2018, Facebook banned General Min Aung Hlaing from its website for links to human rights abuses and social media manipulation.

The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called, has usually responded to these bans by simply creating new accounts.

For years, military personnel were the main actors in a systematic campaign on Facebook that humiliated the Rohingya as foreigners living illegally in Myanmar, even though many had been there for generations.

In 2017, the Tatmadaw launched a military campaign that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya and forced more than 700,000 to flee the country. At the time, United Nations officials called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Facebook later said it should have done more to prevent its platform from being used to “promote division and incite offline violence”.

By blocking advertising from military-owned companies, Facebook’s recent move also targets the military’s economic influence. The generals run an extensive and opaque network of business operations that do everything from brewing beer to providing telecommunications services.

With the generals already restricting Facebook access, the final impact of the company’s moves announced on Wednesday may be limited. However, some companies in Myanmar have a proven record of spending a lot on social media.

Last year, Facebook removed a number of accounts and pages after Myanmar’s military telecommunications company Mytel was linked to the spread of false information – often fake accounts – and other violations of its regulations.

According to Facebook, Mytel, in collaboration with a PR firm, apparently spent over $ 1 million on advertising to spread false criticism of competing telecommunications companies. More than 200,000 people followed sites accusing Mytel rivals of impending plans to exit the market and other failures.

Interest groups have accused Facebook of failing to be pushed back more quickly and extensively after the February 1 coup in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

“Donald Trump was fired from Facebook for inciting violence and attempted coup, but the Burmese military is allowed to stay on Facebook despite genocide and coup,” wrote Mark Farmaner, Burma Campaign UK director, in a statement on February 16.

“It’s time to kick the Burmese military off Facebook,” he added.

Mr Farmaner welcomed Facebook’s recent decision, but said the social network should have gone further and banned the sites of Tatmadaw-owned companies.

Facebook tried Wednesday to clarify the reasons for a ban that could have permanent political ramifications for the company. A statement said it banned “remaining” accounts related to the military because the coup was “an emergency” before referring to the military’s long history of human rights abuses, violence and social media manipulation.

“Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have sparked the need for this ban,” the company said. It added that the risk of keeping the Myanmar military on Facebook and Instagram was “too great” and that the military would be banned indefinitely.

The action underscores the difficulty Facebook is facing in terms of what it allows on its website. Mark Zuckerberg, the managing director of Facebook, has long been campaigning for freedom of speech and positions the website merely as a platform and technology service that does not get involved in government or social disputes.

Mr. Zuckerberg has been increasingly scrutinized by lawmakers, regulators and users for this stance and for allowing hate speech, misinformation and content that leads to violence on Facebook.

Over time, Facebook has become increasingly willing to take action against the information posted on its platform, especially last year in connection with the US election. Last year it hit pages and posts on the QAnon conspiracy theory movement.

And last month, Facebook banned then-President Donald J. Trump from using the service for at least the remainder of his term after a crowd of his supporters, whom he urged to protest the election results, left the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 1 had stormed 6. Mr. Trump still cannot post on Facebook.

Critics have said that many of these steps were too little, too late.

During the protests in Myanmar, organizers used Facebook to coordinate marches, share footage of demonstrations and violent military raids, and distribute memes poking fun at the coup plotters. The military, in turn, has spread its own message, questioning the latest election results and claiming evidence of election fraud.

The military’s use of Facebook pages appears to be aimed primarily at the lower echelons to provide justification for the coup and to buttress support. Facebook’s bans appear to have had no impact on military officers’ personal reports or the many closed chat groups that feed the nationalist narrative popular with soldiers.

Facebook became a central part of everyday life in Myanmar after the general public gained access to the internet about a decade ago when the country opened up to the outside world.

As of Thursday, at least one military-linked page on Facebook was available to broadcast official announcements. It showed a photo of General Min Aung Hlaing saluting in full regalia and having 1,462 followers and 1,350 likes.