Facebook Takes a Side, Banning Myanmar Military After Coup

Facebook said on Wednesday that it had 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 bars military-owned businesses from advertising on Facebook, plunged the social network more directly into Myanmar’s post-coup politics. The decision left little question that the company was taking the side of a pro-democracy movement against a military government that had abruptly seized power.

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

But even as the generals took measures to block Facebook, they have continued to use the platform as a channel to distribute propaganda. One of the first statements by the coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, after the takeover was posted on the military’s official Facebook page.

The social network later removed that page and another state TV network page. It also took down the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders who were linked to the violence against the Rohingya. In 2018, Facebook banned General Min Aung Hlaing from its site because of his links to human rights violations and social media manipulation.

The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has typically responded to these bans by simply creating fresh accounts.

For years, members of the military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that demeaned the Rohingya as foreigners illegally living in Myanmar, even though many had been there for generations.

In 2017, the Tatmadaw launched a military campaign that led to 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 “foment division and incite offline violence.”

By blocking advertising from military-owned businesses, Facebook’s most recent action also takes aim at the military’s economic influence. The generals run a sprawling and opaque network of business holdings that do everything from brewing beer to providing telecom services.

Since the generals have already restricted Facebook access, the ultimate impact of the moves the company announced on Wednesday may be limited. But some companies in Myanmar have a track record of spending big on the social network.

Last year, Facebook removed a number of accounts and pages after it linked Myanmar’s military-owned telecom services provider, Mytel, to the spreading of false information — often with fake accounts — and other violations of its terms.

Mytel, in cooperation with a public relations firm, appeared to spend over $1 million on advertising to spread false criticism of rival telecom firms, according to Facebook. More than 200,000 people followed pages that accused Mytel rivals of imminent plans to leave the market and other failures.

Advocacy groups have faulted Facebook for failing to act more quickly and comprehensively in pushing back after the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

“Donald Trump was kicked off Facebook for inciting violence and an attempted coup, but the Burmese military are allowed to stay on Facebook despite committing genocide and holding a coup,” wrote Mark Farmaner, director of the advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, in a statement on Feb. 16.

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

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

Facebook took pains on Wednesday to clarify the rationale for a ban that could have long-lasting political ramifications for the company. In a statement, it said it was banning “remaining” accounts linked to the military because the coup was “an emergency,” before citing the military’s long history of human rights abuses, violence and social media manipulation.

“Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban,” the company said. It added that the risks of letting the Myanmar military remain on Facebook and Instagram were “too great” and that the military would be barred indefinitely.

The action underscores the difficulties Facebook faces over what it allows on its site. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has long championed freedom of speech above all else, positioning the site as merely a platform and technology service that would not get involved in governmental or social disputes.

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

Over time, Facebook has become increasingly willing to act against what is posted on its platform, especially over the past year in connection with the U.S. election. Last year, it cracked down on pages and posts about the QAnon conspiracy theory movement.

And last month, Facebook barred then-President Donald J. Trump from using the service, at least through the remainder of his term, after a mob of his supporters, whom he had urged to protest the election results, stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Mr. Trump remains unable to post on Facebook.

Many of these moves have been too little, too late, critics have said.

During Myanmar’s protests, organizers have used Facebook to coordinate marches, to share footage of demonstrations and violent military crackdowns, and to distribute memes mocking the coup leaders. The military, in turn, has pushed its own message, questioning recent election results and claiming to have evidence of voter fraud.

The military’s use of Facebook pages has appeared to be directed mainly at its lower ranks, to provide a rationale for the coup and shore up support. The bans from Facebook do not appear to affect the personal accounts of military officers or the many closed chat groups that feed the nationalist narrative popular among soldiers.

Facebook became central to day-to-day life in Myanmar after the general public began gaining access to the internet about a decade ago, when the country opened up to the outside world.

As of Thursday, at least one page linked to the military remained available on Facebook to distribute official announcements. It featured a photo of General Min Aung Hlaing, saluting in full regalia, and had 1,462 followers and 1,350 likes.

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