YouTube said Friday that it had deleted five television channels operated by Myanmar’s military from its platform. It was the latest in a series of moves by American internet giants to reduce the military’s online footprint since it took power in a coup last month.
The company – a unit of Alphabet that also owns Google – said in a statement that it removed the channels and videos based on its community guidelines, but without disclosing what rules the military broke. The channels blocked included the government-run radio and television in Myanmar and the military-owned Myawaddy Media, both of which broadcast news, sports, military propaganda and battle anthems.
The removal came at the end of the bloodiest week of protests since the overthrow of Myanmar’s fragile democratic government on February 1. More than 30 people were killed on Wednesday as security forces used increasingly brutal means to quell protests against the coup. At least one person, a 20-year-old man who was shot in the neck, was killed in a protest Friday in Mandalay city.
Myanmar’s post-coup policy also played out digitally. Protesters have used social media sites to schedule demonstrations, distribute memes denouncing the takeover of the generals, and share videos about police and military violence.
The military, in turn, has stormed telecommunications data centers and blocked social media sites. Sometimes it completely cut off internet access. When they can get online, many people in the country have turned to special software to bypass the blocks and log into sites like Facebook.
In the weeks since the coup, internet companies have slowly tightened controls on the military. Last week, Facebook said it would block all military pages on its website and reduce advertising by military-owned companies in one of the most direct interventions in any country’s politics to date.
The shutdown of YouTube appeared to be on the verge of a broader ban on Facebook. A YouTube spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about whether Alphabet would take further action against the military, such as canceling it. B. Blocking their companies’ access to ads, as was the case with Facebook. The move from YouTube was previously reported by Reuters.
The coup and subsequent protests have placed American internet companies in an increasingly familiar, if uncomfortable position as political arbiter in struggles for democracy and human rights far removed from their homeland. Nationalist leaders around the world, from the Philippines to India to the US, have used Facebook and other platforms to spread disinformation and incite violence.
Myanmar had already become a test case for dealing with some of the internet’s most dangerous excesses. For example, Facebook has been heavily criticized for how the military used the platform to promote hatred against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the military.
Myanmar only joined the global internet after the generals who had controlled the country for years relaxed their hold about a decade ago. Since then, people in Myanmar have gone into online life with great enthusiasm. Sites like YouTube and Facebook have become town squares for a country that went online late.
Although the military has been persistent in its approach to internet blocs since the coup, it has years of experience with online disinformation. For example, while it perpetrated atrocities against the Rohingya, members of the military were the main actors behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that humiliated the mostly Muslim ethnic group as illegally living in Myanmar, despite many having been there for generations.
According to tech experts in Myanmar, a then-hybrid civil-military government diverted $ 4.5 million from an emergency fund in 2018 to use on a social media surveillance team under military command.
Since then, internet companies have tried to show they were aware of the military’s tactics. During the campaign leading up to the national elections in Myanmar last year, Alphabet shut down two YouTube channels that were alleged to be linked to influencing operations that support the party formed by the former military junta. After the election, the company dropped 34 more military-related YouTube channels. In the past few months, another 20 such channels and 160 videos have been cut for violating policies related to hate speech, harassment and violent content.
Despite the blockades, activists in Myanmar complain that tech companies are still slow to break down disinformation and violent content. The official pages of several television channels that had been switched off by YouTube had already been blocked by Facebook. And since Facebook’s major ban on military sites, a number of replacement sites appear to have sprung up to replace those that were removed.