The following report is an edited version of what was initially written for my student research project.
On 8 September 2017, hours after a Myanmar court sentenced the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, to seven years in prison, a Facebook account named Wai Phyo Oo called for death penalty for the journalists in a jingoistic comment under the Facebook post of 7 Day News Journal.
“Foreign countries could not put pressure on and interfere with Myanmar’s judiciary,” read his comment in Burmese.
“(The sentence of) 7 years is too light. Such a treason against the country deserves death penalty,” said Wai Phyo Oo in the same comment.
On the same day he commented under News Watch’s report on the journalists posting the same text while adding the news headline. So what motivated him to post similar messages against the journalists under news pages? A look at his profile returns very few information about him. His profile did not have his own photo or personal posts such as a birthday message or the school he attended. His profile and cover photos had received few or no likes. These were the patterns shared by other accounts with questionable authenticity that posted hateful or partisan comments under Facebook pages of news publications in Myanmar.
Facebook as the news source
There are 18 million monthly active Facebook users (34% of the nation’s population) in Myanmar according to a report published by We Are Social and Hootsuite. The vast majority of people in Myanmar come to Facebook to read news. In the public opinion poll collected by the International Republican Institute in 2017, 73% of the respondents in Myanmar said they like Facebook for being able to watch and read international and local news.
Many news organizations with millions of followers published stories or multimedia content on their Facebook pages instead of directing traffic to their websites. As a result, the Facebook comment section may be a target for those trying to change public opinion on contentious issues.
My examination focused on the top five comments of the five most-followed publications reporting on two major news events, the jail sentence of Reuters journalists and the arrest of journalists from the Eleven Media Group. The following five news outlets have the largest audience among Facebook users in Myanmar as of 1st December 2018, according to the social media analytics company Social Bakers:
The Reuters journalists were arrested and given a sentence of seven years in prison after the police found that they were investigating a massacre committed by the military against the Rohingya villagers in the northern part of the country. The EMG journalists wrote a report on the possible corruption charges of the Yangon Chief Minister from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, although the charges against them were later dropped.
The respective journalists attempted to keep a check on power and they faced retaliation for doing so in the courtroom. On Facebook, news reports about them were inundated with hateful or partisan comments made by suspicious accounts.
Among the 50 comments I analyzed in the news stories related to these journalists:
· 44% of the accounts did not have a photo of themselves or personal messages in their profiles. They upload photos of celebrities or scantily-clad women on their supposedly female profile. They used stock photos, usually consisting of generic scenery or common objects like flowers as their cover photos.
· 28% of the accounts were opened in 2018.
· More than half of the accounts hid their number of friends, while 50% of the accounts whose friend lists are visible have less than 50 friends. The average network size of Facebook users in Myanmar is unknown. But according to a survey from Pew Research, the average number of friends a Facebook account has is 338.
· The same or different accounts posted the identical text in the comments under different news stories.
· They spelled their names in different ways and used the same or similar profile pictures to open multiple accounts.
A group of accounts posting the same political message
The NLD officials and their supporters often complained that the police, which was under the military’s control, did not follow the orders of the civilian government, hampering their reforms. But in the case of the EMG journalists, the Chief Minister of Yangon from the NLD party seemed to have ordered the police to arrest the journalists. Min Kyithway highlighted this point in his critical comment. Two other accounts, Suu Rai and Naing Chaw Yu Minn, posted the same text under three different news organizations, 7Day, Irrawaddy and Mizzima.
All three accounts were relatively new. Min Kyithway, Suu Rai and Naing Chaw Yu Minn opened theirs account two days, one month and three months before their respective comments appeared under the news pages.
In addition, the friend lists of Min Kyithway and Suu Rai shared some striking similarities. Among seven Facebook friends of Min Kyithway, all of whom were new accounts with no personal photos, three accounts had similar profile pictures and the same names as those from Suu Rai’s friends. They used the same name, spelled in Burmese and English, and the same profile pictures in several accounts. For example, both had a friend called Mya Kyar Phyu who used kissing emoji pictures as her profile photos and spelled her names in English and Burmese. Similarly, Suu Rai had a friend called Min Kyithway but his name was spelled in Burmese unlike the previous account whose name was spelled in English.
In addition, the same text used by these three accounts was posted to Facebook by two other users on 10th and 11th October respectively.
The same pattern of different Facebook accounts posting the same message was found under the news stories related to the Reuters journalists. When an account named Soe Nayt Thit called the Reuters journalists selfish and unpatriotic for exposing the massacre and compared the situation to the America’s war in Vietnam, at least three accounts posted the same message.
How the accounts hide their identity
Some suspicious accounts found in the comment section of the news pages made few or no posts on their own Facebook pages. They use photos of celebrities and stock photos as their public face. Hpay Chit, who expressed his disapproval towards the NLD government for acting oppressive to the journalists under the 7Day’s post, did not make a single public post on his Facebook timeline. His profile picture, when searched via Google Images, was the photo of a Los Angeles singer. Even more obvious is his cover photo which was a screenshot of his google search for “love scene”.
Although he was not active on his own timeline, he posted the same comment twice under two different pages, 7 Day and Mizzima.
While these Facebook accounts produced negative comments towards the Reuters journalists, they seized the opportunity to attack the NLD government in the case of EMG journalists. An account named Critique Master sent anti-NLD messages under at least two news pages. His comments saying he would not vote for the NLD in 2020 general election were found under Mizzima and Popular News Journal’s posts. Although they were not identically the same, they had a similar theme — an annoyed voter who refused to take part in electoral process any longer. The account might have the intention to send similar messages under the news pages as almost all of his liked Facebook pages were those of news publications.
Photos of scantily-clad women mixed with anti-Muslim messages
The suspicious Facebook accounts mixed their political messages with images and videos of young women. A Facebook user, Honey Soe Win, said that the Reuters journalists deserved the death penalty in a comment under 7Day News Journal. “Her” Facebook profile regularly uploads photos of different women, as her followers praised her beauty. At least two photos posted by the account had watermarks of a professional photo studio. Sandwiched between photos of women were an opposition to interfaith marriage and hatred against Muslims. One of her posts expressed support for the Race and Religion Protection laws, the passage of which was heavily lobbied for by nationalist groups in Myanmar. She told her more than 1,500 followers that descendants of Burmese women marrying Muslims will be 99% Muslims.
Violation of Facebook Policies
Due to the lack of personal information on their profiles and the tactic of spreading the same message in different comments by the same or different Facebook accounts, we can tell most of these Facebook accounts were not authentic.
Facebook deleted some of the accounts. Among the suspicious accounts that posted the same messages under different news pages, the profiles of Min Kyithway and Suu Rai were deleted. It was not clear whether the accounts were deleted for their inauthentic behavior or violation of hate speech or other policies. But many accounts that hid their identity and spread the same message in the comment boxes were still active when I checked months later.
As discussed, the above news pages are the most popular in terms of social media following. It may be the reason these suspicious accounts pushed their political messages in the comments. The fact that these accounts criticized the Reuters journalists in the first case but attacked the NLD government in the second case tell us that they may be supporters of the Burmese military.
Although Myanmar comes up in almost every journalistic or academic report on fake news or Facebook’s impacts on communities, there is no study on the content and tactics of such fake news or the trolls. This study, conducted under supervision of Dr. Masato Kajimoto of the JMSC, aims to fill the gap.
Although I wanted to collect more empirical data, I could not commit a lot of my time to it. So, I am publishing the edited version of the research for journalists, researchers and members of public who might be interested in this phenomenon of Facebook and online trolling in Myanmar/Burma. You may quote it freely.
If you want to send tips, ideas or suggestions, you can reach me via my email address, aungkaungmyat (at) protonmail.com or send an encrypted message to my pgp key (fingerprint — 438B E12C 13AD 35AD 2DB8 9F3E A64C CF06 CC16 48E7). Or a good ol’ dm on Twitter works of course.