Christian Caryl

Burma Gives a Big Thumbs-Up to Facebook

Four years ago Facebook didn’t exist in Burma. Now it’s the country’s most important source of information.

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As the vote count draws to a close, it’s clear that Burma’s long-suffering opposition has scored a landslide victory in Sunday’s historic national election. And the leader of that opposition knows whom to thank. As she was explaining the reasons for her party’s remarkable triumph in an interview with the BBC this week, Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said this: “And then of course there’s the communications revolution. This has made a huge difference. Everybody gets onto the net and informs everybody else of what is happening. And so it’s much more difficult for those who wish to commit irregularities to get away with it.”

She could have been a little more specific, though. When people here in Burma refer to the “Internet,” what they often have in mind is Facebook — the social media network that dominates all online activity in this country to a degree unimaginable anywhere else. When President Thein Sein decided to issue a statement conceding victory to Suu Kyi’s triumphant League for National Democracy (NLD), he used the Facebook page of the presidential spokesman to do it. The army published a similar concession statement on its own Facebook page. And when Suu Kyi held a press conference a few days before the election, millions of people tuned in via Facebook (since state-run media did not deign to show it).

Both Suu Kyi and her opponents were just following the eyeballs. Though the company declines to provide statistics on its Burma operations, experts put the number of registered Facebook users (in this country of 50 million) at 6.4 million. That’s up from more or less zero until the fall of 2011 — since Facebook didn’t even officially exist in the country until then. Facebook’s Messenger app also enjoys huge popularity thanks to its reputation for good security — an important selling point in a country with a long history of aggressive government surveillance. (In Burma, at least, you can use Messenger without actually having an account, and many Burmese seem to be doing just that.) “Facebook has become an important and growing part of people’s lives in Myanmar,” says Facebook representative Clare Wareing, using the official name for Burma, “and we are humbled by the ways we see people in Myanmar connect in big and small ways.” (Wareing works for the Australian branch of the company, which is responsible for operations in Burma.)

Yet even if the powers-that-be have tried to harness it to their own ends, it’s indisputably Aung San Suu Kyi and her party that have been the biggest beneficiaries of Facebook’s startling rise. That’s because television and radio — the means by which most Burmese get their information — remain firmly under state control, as do large swathes of the print media. Facebook, which arrived in Burma about the time that the government set about dismantling its long-standing system of censorship, has given the opposition a crucial way of closing the gap.

Than Htut Aung, Chairman and CEO of Eleven Media Group, says that his company — one of the country’s biggest private media conglomerates — has distinguished itself from its state-run rivals by its generous coverage of the NLD, which is why its Facebook page now boasts 4.5 million followers. (Eleven Media’s website, by contrast, has a negligible audience.) When a member of the ruling party insulted Suu Kyi in a Facebook post a few months ago, the corresponding report on Eleven Media’s Facebook page received a mind-boggling 20,000 comments.

It’s the pluralism of Facebook, says Aung, that has made it the dominant source of information for young Burmese: “Six months ago, it was people in their forties and fifties who were interested in politics. Now it’s the people in their twenties and thirties who are interested in the election — and that’s due mainly to Facebook.

Yet it’s not just the usual suspects who depend on the social media network. The proliferation of smartphones extends far beyond the educated elite (including, increasingly, people in the countryside, who make up the majority of Burma’s citizens). Htay Aung, 29, a fishmonger who works at an open-air market in Rangoon’s Insein district, accesses Facebook through his Huawei smartphone. Asked whether he’s ever used Google, he shakes his head with a smile. “I use my phone to make calls and to look at Facebook,” he says. He follows posts from 30 or so of his friends and a few online newspapers. He shares all of the news he gets from Facebook with his wife, who also works in the market.

The sudden dominance of Facebook has much to do with the peculiarities of development in a country that has gone through “twenty years of digital development in two years,” says Yan Naung Oak of Phandeeyar, a non-profit group that tries to harness technology for social causes. As recently as three years ago, he notes, Internet access and mobile phones were virtually unknown in the country, which has spent most of the past sixty years in a political and economic deep freeze thanks to a tiny coterie of military leaders who kept it under tight control — until five years ago, when they started loosening the reins.

Two years ago, the government issued the country’s first mobile phone licenses, and that, combined with an influx of cheap Chinese handsets, enabled ordinary Burmese to leapfrog from a decrepit landline network straight to 21st-century mobile Internet. Phandeeyar’s David Madden says that what makes Burma unique is that it’s the “first country this size to come online via smartphones.”

In an environment consisting almost entirely of novice users, Facebook’s ease of use (and the ease with which pretty much anyone can set up an account) has given it a huge advantage. (For a while, says Yan Naung Oak, certain shops in Rangoon specialized in setting up Facebook accounts for customers for a fee of 2,000 kyats, about $1.60 at current rates.) Yet its dominance also brings concerns. Some experts worry that its effective monopoly will weigh on media diversity and quash urgently needed innovation.

And then there’s the problem of incendiary rhetoric. It’s an issue familiar to online communities everywhere, but it’s a particularly urgent one in Burma, where sixty years of dictatorship have stored up a toxic brew of sectarian tensions and long-festering grievances that have only just begun to emerge into the open. The movement of ultranationalist Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha has used Facebook as an instrument for the spread of its rants against the Muslim minority, which it views as a threat to the dominant Buddhist culture.

When a leading Ma Ba Tha activist published an anti-Muslim smear on his Facebook page recently, Yan Naing, a Muslim lawyer in Rangoon, reported the post to the police, citing a law against online hate speech. “Facebook is a big platform,” he says. “In our country most young people are using Facebook, so a lot of them have seen the post. It has a lot of impact — and a lot of Muslim people are very upset.” (He hastens to add that “real Buddhists,” whom he describes as “very good and kind,” would never lower themselves to insult another religion like this.) Phandeeyar, the civic tech organization, has launched an online campaign that features a traditional Burmese folk character as a mascot to promote the message “think before you post.”

It remains to be seen whether Burma can find ways of coping with issues — like how to safeguard free speech from the extremist ranters who exploit it — that bedevil even mature democracies. A more diverse online ecosystem might not be a bad idea, either. For the moment, though, Burma’s love affair with Facebook shows no signs of cooling off.

In the photo, young men browse Facebook on their smartphones as they sit in a street in Yangon on August 20, 2015.

Photo credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl