Facebook said on Wednesday it had banned Myanmar troops from their platforms, weeks after the country’s fragile democratic government was toppled in a military coup.
The move, which also barred military-owned businesses from advertising on Facebook, brought the social network more direct attention to Myanmar’s post-coup politics. The decision left little doubt that the company was siding with a pro-democracy movement against a military government that had suddenly taken power.
Facebook has taken action after years of criticism for the way Myanmar’s military uses the site, including inciting hatred towards the country’s Muslim minority Rohingya. Since the coup earlier this month, which overthrew the civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and returned Myanmar to full military regime, the military has repeatedly turned off the Internet and cut access to social networking sites. great assembly.
But even when the generals took steps to block Facebook, they continued to use the platform as a channel for propaganda. One of the coup’s first statements, Lieutenant General Min Aung Hlaing, was posted on the military’s official Facebook page.
The social network subsequently removed that page and another state-owned television network. It also removed official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders who were involved in violence against the Rohingya. In 2018, Facebook banned General Min Aung Hlaing from his website for his human rights abuses and manipulation of social networks.
The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is known, often responds to these bans by simply creating new accounts.
For years, members of the military were the main agents behind a systematic Facebook campaign that viewed the Rohingya as illegitimate foreigners in Myanmar, though many have been there for so many. system.
In 2017, Tatmadaw launched a military campaign that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya and displaced more than 700,000 of them. At the time, UN officials called it “an example of a textbook on ethnic cleansing.”
Facebook later said it should have done more to prevent its platform from being used to “create divisions and incite violence offline”.
By blocking ads from military-owned businesses, Facebook’s most recent action also targeted the military’s economic influence. These generals run an obscure network of business ownership, doing everything from brewing beer to providing telecommunications services.
Since the generals have restricted access to Facebook, the ultimate impact of the moves the company announced on Wednesday could be limited. But some companies in Myanmar have a strong record of spending on social media.
Last year, Facebook removed several accounts and pages after linking up with Myanmar’s military-owned telecommunications carrier Mytel, with the spread of misinformation – often fake accounts. – and other breach of terms.
Mytel, which is partnered with a public relations firm, appears to have spent more than $ 1 million on advertising to spread false criticism against rival telecom companies, according to Facebook. More than 200,000 followers of the site accuse Mytel competitors of the imminent plan to leave the market and other setbacks.
Campaign groups have blamed Facebook for failing to act more quickly and comprehensively in repelling the February 1 coup in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Mark Farmaner, director of the British Burmese campaign, wrote: “Donald Trump was kicked out of Facebook for inciting violence and attempted coup, but the Burmese military is still allowed to stay on Facebook despite committing suicide strains and staged a coup. on February 16.
“It is time to remove the Burmese army from Facebook,” he added.
Farmaner welcomed Facebook’s latest decision, but said the social network should have gone further and banned the sites of companies owned by Tatmadaw.
Facebook made an effort on Wednesday to clarify the reasons for a ban that could have lasting political impact on the company. In a statement, they said they were banning “remaining” military-related accounts because the coup was “an emergency”, before citing the military’s long history of breaches human rights, violence and manipulation of social media.
The events since the February 1 coup, including fatal violence, have resulted in demand for the ban, the company said. It added that the risk of leaving the Myanmar military on Facebook and Instagram was “too great” and that the military would be banned indefinitely.
This action highlights the difficulties Facebook faces compared to what it allows on its site. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has long advocated freedom of speech above all else, positioning the site as a platform and a technology service that would not be involved in government or social disputes. .
Zuckerberg is increasingly scrutinized by lawmakers, regulators and users for that stance and allows 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 in the past year regarding the US election. Last year, it cracked down on pages and posts about the QAnon conspiracy movement.
And last month, Facebook banned President Donald J. Trump from using the service, at least for the remainder of his term, after a crowd of his supporters, whom he has called for opposing the election results, stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6. Mr. Trump still could not post on Facebook.
Critics say many of these moves are too few and too late.
During demonstrations in Myanmar, organizers used Facebook to coordinate the marches, shared footage of military demonstrations and violent repression, and spread mocking memes. coup leaders. In turn, the military issued its own message, questioning the recent election results and claiming there is evidence of voter fraud.
The military’s use of Facebook pages appears to be primarily aimed at their lower ranks, to provide a rationale for the coup and to increase support. The Facebook bans do not seem to affect the personal accounts of military officers or the many secret chat groups that provide stories of nationalism pervasive among soldiers.
Facebook became the center of everyday life in Myanmar after the public started reaching the Internet about a decade ago, when the country opened up to the outside world.
As of Thursday, at least one military-affiliated page remains available on Facebook to distribute official announcements. It has a photo of General Min Aung Hlaing, giving a formal greeting, and has 1,462 followers and 1,350 likes.