When the internet was restored on February 1 in the midst of Myanmar’s military coup, Zaw Lahpai, a pseudonym for an active social media user, jumped at the opportunity to post online. A longtime Facebook user, as the vast majority are in Myanmar, he also turned to Twitter in the hopes of reaching a greater audience.
It had only been a few hours since the Myanmar military had taken power and Zaw was looking for a way to tell the world that he was going to fight back. He wrote on Twitter: “We have been here before and we will get through it. We are a tough, resilient & resourceful people.”
He still remembers this moment, overwhelmed by a mix of despair and uncertainty, but hopeful that his words would have an impact.
“I just wanted to let people know that the internet is back but not sure for how long. While my heart sank and I was angry, I was trying to be calm and wanted to assure friends and people not to worry,” remembered Zaw.
“If that was the last tweet people saw from me, I wanted it to be positive and defiant.”
Sentiments like these quickly filled up social media feeds across Myanmar. Eager to capture the attention of the international community while evading the watchful gaze of the military, many social media users turned to Twitter, a virtually untouched platform in the country prior to February 1. But despite the initial surge, use of Twitter among many of Myanmar’s new signups seems to have since tapered off, pointing to the platform’s limitations.
Zaw, a member of the Kachin ethnic group and Myanmar’s LGBT community, has been an active voice on Twitter in the past months, both in protesting against the military as well as engaging in discussions on inclusion within the anti-coup movement. For Zaw, Twitter has become a much-needed source of breaking news, essential during the uncertainty of the coup, and it has now become his go-to platform.
“They know there are more people using Twitter outside of Myanmar. You have more journalists, diplomats and people from other countries who have similar experiences of oppression showing solidarity,” said Zaw. “There are lots of conversations taking place [on Twitter] and I wanted to be part of that conversation.”
Zaw is not alone. Kay Kay, a pseudonym for a representative from the Raise Three Fingers campaign, an online movement using art to protest against the military, says that since the coup Twitter has become an invaluable platform for real-time debates across different fields.
“People are able to have conversations publicly on Twitter so you can tune into activists talking about certain topics like ethnic inclusion or the ethnic armed groups and their role in the movement,” said Kay Kay. “There’s a greater opportunity to learn and listen in on these debates that are taking place. These are conversations that would be hard for us to be privy to in real time on other platforms like Instagram or Facebook.”
While both Facebook and Twitter were banned by the military shortly after the coup, the sudden inaccessibility of the former along with rising safety concerns of military presence on the platform contributed to a near-30% decrease in referral traffic – a sharp drop for Facebook, long-synonymous with the internet in Myanmar.
Despite its historically marginal role in Myanmar online discourse, the military have begun to take Twitter more seriously given its growing prevalence among protesters. The platform was banned on February 5, the day after Facebook was blocked, and was also recently exempted from the military’s “whitelist”, which allows the use of certain websites over others in Myanmar.
However, despite its rising prominence, Twitter still enjoys a relatively novel standing in Myanmar, where users are able to create profiles with little personal information required. Unlike Facebook where years of personal data, pictures, and posts can easily be accessed, even if deleted, Twitter allows for users to shed their cyber footprint and start anew.
“I have reduced using Facebook for a variety of reasons, one of which being security. If you look at the history you can still find information, photos that show who I am,” said Zaw.
“On the other hand, on Twitter, I feel I can talk a lot more openly and freely because I don’t have as much personal information that can be traced to me – a lot more strangers than friends.”
Thet, a pseudonym used by a young Karen woman, has gained nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter since the coup. She joined Twitter in October 2020, but only began using the platform regularly after the coup as it allowed for more immediate connectivity and, due to its novelty, it felt safer than Facebook.
“I stopped using Facebook in terms of posting information and content because there’s more risk on Facebook because more military is using Facebook. With Twitter there is less of that security concern,” said Thet.
“My sensation is the people the military employ to work for them as dalans or informants, who they ask to look through groups and pretend they are protesters, it’s easier for them to do that on Facebook.”
These dalans, a term used historically to refer to the military’s domestic spies in Myanmar, have always been prevalent online. But their presence on Facebook has reportedly increased since the coup, according to anecdotal accounts by users. These informants often create fake accounts, disguising themselves as part of the opposition to infiltrate pro-democracy groups for the purpose of collecting data and media that can be used to file trumped-up charges against protesters in court.
Facebook has responded to this activity by banning the Tatmadaw from the platform. The company has taken proactive measures to find and remove “99% of hate speech before its reported”, Rafael Frankel, Director of Policy APAC Emerging Countries at Facebook, told the Globe.
Facebook pointed the Globe to its locked profile programme, which shows only a limited view of the profile, and the secret conversations in the Messenger app, which allows for disappearing messages, as key efforts in place to protect Myanmar users.
However, infiltration by dalans remains hard to avoid. Many are not formal members of the military, but pro-military supporters who circumvent the ban by hiding their identity, fuelling deep-seated mistrust and fear among the platform’s users.
While these informants remain most prevalent on Facebook, Twitter is not immune to the military’s tactics. An analyst working for a tech company in Myanmar, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, believes that the military likely views each platform similarly.
“Some people will argue that [Twitter] is a safer platform, but from the perspective of the military junta if they want to intrude on privacy or on the digital space, they will equally [target] Facebook and Twitter,” said the anonymous analyst. “I wouldn’t say that [Twitter] is safer because Facebook has quite advanced security measures and they are faster to respond to Burmese needs, which we don’t really see on Twitter.”
Though Twitter does not publish country data, according to Stacounter its referral traffic grew by more than 10%, corresponding to over 1 million new users, between February and April. But more recently, membership seems to have tapered off as an increasing number of protesters and influencers are targeted and censored and the opposition adapts to evade the military.
The analyst is not surprised by the trend in Twitter use, saying it has mirrored the evolution of the protest movement more widely.
“I would say gradually people will shift back to Facebook. If there are no trending hot topics, Twitter will be less used,” said the analyst.
“When you look back at usage, it was mostly news flashes like ‘hey something’s happening, let’s tweet, let’s push it out’ but more and more these days I see less of this because people have cooled down and they feel less related to the revolution.”
The benefits of switching to new platforms that offer different mechanisms to share information and fall outside the military’s sightlines have similarly spurred an increase in usership across multimedia sites like YouTube and TikTok.
For Kay Kay, her campaign is present on all major social media platforms in Myanmar and notes that there are distinct benefits to each.
“A lot of ethnic armed organisations are using TikTok to show what they’re doing in the field, their training, etc,” said Kay Kay. “You get real, raw content, videos and photos of death, crying, pain from the Myanmar people. For TikTok, we’re seeing more snapshots of everyday life, much more in the moment, and much more graphic content as well.”
While YouTube is similarly a prominent video-based platform, Kay Kay explained that the videos are often edited, which makes them less immediate and also reduces the raw nature of the content being shared.
“TikTok is like the Twitter of multimedia platforms, based on video content rather than text. They’re both very well-suited for sharing quick updates, what’s happening in the day-to-day, to document the realities of life under a coup, and to get the word out about what’s happening on the ground,” said Kay Kay.
The novelty of platforms like Tik Tok and Twitter also offer users nearly absolute anonymity. Unlike on Facebook, where users must accept “friend requests” to view and interact fully with a profile, on Twitter, users who opt for a public profile can be viewed by anyone regardless of if they are a “follower”.
For Zaw and Thet, this has allowed for them, as well as others within the protest movement, to receive information much faster given the immediate nature of the platform.
“Facebook feels more anecdotal whereas Twitter feels more like a rapid response, quick facts, we need to get this information out as quickly as possible,” explained Thet.
But this push for expediency can sometimes backfire when information is not properly vetted or considered before its release. On Twitter, prominent users are awarded a blue tick next to their names, signalling a level of credibility in the information that they post and share.
“The blue tick carries a lot of weight. if you’re verified that must mean that you’re who you say you are and you don’t have bad intentions in sharing news,” said Thet. “We rely heavily on the blue check mark system, which tells us ‘ok this is a prominent journalist or a prominent activist’ and we trust what they are saying.”
Yet even though verified users are vetted, with Twitter recently updating their verification process to be more comprehensive and selective, human error persists.
In one instance shortly after the coup, rumours of Chinese involvement in Myanmar began to surge leading to heightened Sinophobia across the country. Mratt Kyaw Thu, a well-respected Myanmar journalist who is verified on Twitter, published the names and passport numbers of Chinese citizens believed to have been on a flight into Myanmar on Twitter. At first, the tweet was widely shared – but outcry over privacy concerns soon rose.
The journalist eventually removed the tweet and issued an apology, but its impact prompted discussion over fact-checking and reliance on Twitter’s verification process.
I think the vacuum of Twitter still skews mostly towards those who are educated and the majority of Twitter users seem to be middle to elite class in Myanmar
Beyond fact-checking and verification, Twitter also lends itself to inaccessibility concerns due to language barriers and perceptions of the platform as catering to certain demographics.
Many of Myanmar’s Twitter tend to communicate in English as it protects them from possible dalans, who often only speak Burmese, and maximises reach to the international community. The use of English is also preferable given the 280 character limit imposed by Twitter, a hindrance in particular to those tweeting in Burmese, given that the Myanmar vernacular often requires double or even triple the length than English.
The reliance on English, typically spoken only by Myanmar’s urban and educated class, as well as the type of content most commonly shared and debated on the platform, namely dense political issues, has carved out a specific niche of users on Twitter.
“The people who are the most active on Twitter are still mostly younger people who are bilingual,” said Thet. “I think the vacuum of Twitter still skews mostly towards those who are educated and the majority of Twitter users seem to be middle to elite class in Myanmar.”
But even with these limitations, Twitter has established itself as a novel tool at the disposal of the anti-junta movement. For those active on the platform, even as usership ebbs and flows, they believe that Twitter’s expedient nature has become central to the spread of information within the protest movement and won’t drop off entirely.
“People are using Twitter more to get messages to the outside world,” said Zaw.
“[They] have started using Twitter so I don’t think they will stop using it, especially since I don’t think the situation in Myanmar will be resolved anytime soon.