Myanmar has undergone a rapid digital transformation. It has transformed from being profoundly disconnected into a country where the Internet reaches most. But its low digital literacy has observers fearing the worst.
Phyu Phyu Thi is co-founder, and research and development manager of MIDO, an organization that works to improve digital literacy and digital rights in Myanmar. It has spearheaded efforts in the country to teach people how to keep themselves and their data safe online as well as how to counter the barrage of disinformation common on Facebook and other sites.
#speakup barometer: Do you think many people in Myanmar have a sense of the importance of digital privacy and security?
It’s really hard to say how much they do. In the early days when people first went online, most accounts were created by the mobile phone shop. For example, you bought a phone and everything was installed already. Then they showed you how to use it and would charge extra to create a Facebook account or a Viber instant messaging account. Buyers didn’t know their own passwords or how to change them. If they got locked out of their accounts, they just went back to the phone shop. And today, that is still very common. I hate to say it, but even when we conduct training with members of parliament, we find that they do the same thing. They don’t know how to change passwords and sometimes depend on their sons or daughters. It’s very scary.
Part of that must have to do with the sudden access that people have had to smartphones and online life. What were some other results of that sudden change from living in a completely offline world to one in which so many people are connected?
It has taken time for people to start understanding what is going on online. Take, for example, the news that would appear in their Facebook feeds. To them, there was no difference between stories in their newsfeed from who knows where and stories posted by mainstream, reputable media houses. People, especially in rural areas, thought it was Facebook that wrote the news, just like a national paper or broadcaster would. People didn’t understand that regular people, non-journalists, were actually posting a lot of things, a lot of disinformation.
Some groups have taken advantage of this lack of knowledge. For example, one extremist group, Ma Ba Tha, use to print out Facebook posts with disinformation on vinyl and hang them at public rallies in rural areas. To many people, who saw them in the Facebook format, these messages were simply correct information. People are slightly more aware now, but it’s hard to say by how much. We still have a lot of people sharing fake news on Facebook.
You mentioned one group that led a concerted campaign to spread fake news. Is that kind of organized effort common or is it more often the case that individual actors are the ones spreading disinformation?
It is very organized. We have a lot of clickbait pages and websites in Myanmar, which post their material on Facebook — which for most people in the country is the Internet. And we see a pattern in many posts, patterns that are meant to deceive. There are fake pages for almost all mainstream media sites, with URLs that are just slightly different from the real ones. These sites copy articles from real media outlets and post them, building up people’s trust in their newsfeed. Then they start throwing in the occasional fake post. It is very clever and very common. You can see that this is not the work of a lone individual.
In addition, it’s all very timely. For example, there’s a famous balloon festival in Shan State every October. People get very excited about the event, and it’s source of pride for the Shan people. But just before the event, fake news came out saying the president would not allow the balloon festival to take place. The goal was to stoke anger, fan conflicts and create tension between ethnic groups in Shan State by hurting ethnic pride. Our research has found that the targets of these kinds of fake news attacks are mostly ruling party members, activists and journalists, and that they take a lot of time and effort. We don’t really have the evidence about who exactly is behind the attacks. But my question is, who has the resources?
What is being done in the country to counter this barrage of disinformation?
There are a few Facebook pages that discuss the fake news issue, such as “Think Before You Trust” and our own, “Real or Not.” We’ve also started a media Internet literacy (MIL) training program for which we’ve developed a curriculum in Burmese and held workshops in both majority Burman areas and in ethnic Shan State. But we realize that with these kinds of workshops we can only reach ten to 15 people at a time, so we’re trying to make our efforts more effective. You have to remember, MIL is very new to people. While general literacy is pretty high in Myanmar, critical thinking is another issue. Even with university graduates, we cannot be sure that they have critical thinking skills. Our educational system does not include critical thinking or anything about digital culture. We need to change that. Plus, we have to think about what is realistic. Fact checking takes a lot of time. We ask people to fact check, but it’s not possible for everyone to check everything they see online. That’s why we do fact checking on our Facebook page and post something about MIL awareness every week. We tell people that they can send a link to us and we will check out the story or post. We’ve had a large response. Now we are working on a ‘Chatbot’ and a TV program to get the MIL message out to young people across the country soon.
Why the sense of urgency?
We have elections in 2020 and we really need to prepare for them. In addition to the two main political parties, there is a new one already coming up and we think another one will emerge, run by someone who was in the military. Competition among the parties will be fierce and the situation will be very complicated. I’m very worried about it. If parties use issues to create conflict, online and offline, to get followers, it will be very dangerous for our society.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer