“Information fight”: inside the fight for the soul of Myanmar

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SINGAPORE, Nov. 2 (Reuters) – As the Burmese military seeks to quell protests in the streets, a parallel battle is unfolding on social media, with the junta using fake accounts to denounce opponents and convey its message that she took power to save the nation from voter fraud, eight people familiar with the tactics said.

The military, which was banned by the country’s dominant online platform, Facebook, after the February 1 coup, has tasked thousands of soldiers with leading what is widely referred to as the military. an “information fight”, according to the population, which includes four soldiers. sources.

The mission of the social media campaign, which is part of the military’s broader propaganda operations, is to disseminate the junta’s point of view among the population, as well as to monitor dissidents and attack them online. as traitors, people told Reuters.

“Soldiers are encouraged to create multiple fake accounts and are given segments of content and talking points that they must post,” said Captain Nyi Thuta, who defected from the army to join rebel forces in late February. . “They also monitor online activity and join (anti-coup) online groups to track them.”

The 31-year-old said he was part of the army’s propaganda operations until his defection, writing speeches for military leader Min Aung Hlaing.

A spokesperson for the military government did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its social media tactics. In September, a junta spokesperson on army-owned Myawaddy TV accused media groups and opposition activists of broadcasting “fake news” about the situation in Myanmar.

The eight people with knowledge of social media have all requested to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation, with the exception of Nyi Thuta and Captain Lin Htet Aung, who defected from the military in April.

The military, known as Tatmadaw, continues its online campaign even as it clamps down on street protests, nine months after ousting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, claiming her National League for Democracy had fraudulently won the November 2020 vote. International election observers said in a May report that the vote was fair.

A Reuters review of thousands of social media posts in 2021 found that around 200 military personnel, using their personal accounts on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Telegram, regularly posted messages or videos alleging a fraud during elections and denouncing anti-coup. protesters as traitors.

In more than 100 cases, the posts or videos were duplicated on dozens of impersonator accounts within minutes, as well as online groups, purported fan channels for Burmese celebrities and sports teams, and purported bodies. press, data from Facebook-owned online tracking tool Crowdtangle showed. .

The publications often called those who opposed the junta “enemies of the state” and “terrorists”, and said in various ways that they wanted to destroy the army, the country and the Buddhist religion.

Many opposition activists use similar methods, creating duplicate accounts to fill “Twitter teams” with hundreds of thousands of members and creating a trend for anti-junta hashtags, according to the journal and four activist sources.

While such tactics are common around the world, they can be particularly influential in Myanmar, according to four researchers interviewed by Reuters who said people receive most of their information through social media rather than directly from established media, and Facebook is regularly used by more than half. population.

‘AGGRESSIVELY REMOVED’

The Tatmadaw has killed more than 1,000 civilians and imprisoned thousands since the coup, according to the United Nations, although the military says these estimates are exaggerated and that soldiers have also been killed by rebel forces .

Rafael Frankel, Facebook’s public policy director for emerging countries, Asia-Pacific, told Reuters that the company had “proactively detected” nearly 98% of the hate speech removed from its platform in Myanmar.

“Our ban on Tatmadaw and the repeated disruption of coordinated inauthentic behavior has made it more difficult for people to abuse our services to cause harm,” he added, answering questions about the continued use of fake accounts. by the army.

“This is a high-conflict issue and we are working hard to calibrate our systems to properly enforce the ban on a large scale.”

Facebook claims to have deleted hundreds of accounts and pages linked to Burmese military personnel since 2018, after the New York Times reported that military officials were behind bogus pages inciting violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority, 700 000 fled an army crackdown in 2017, and a Reuters investigation found that Facebook was failing to control anti-Rohingya hate speech.

YouTube said it had “shut down” two pro-military channels posing as news outlets reported by Reuters and monitored “violent” content, while TikTok said it had ” aggressively deleted “thousands of Burmese accounts that violated its guidelines.

Twitter said it remains vigilant against attempted manipulation. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

‘INFORMATION WAR’

The anti-news campaign is coordinated from the capital Naypyidaw by the Army’s Public Relations and News Production Unit, known by the acronym Ka Ka Com, which has hundreds of soldiers there. low, said Nyi Thuta and Lin Htet Aung.

“Ka Ka Com gives information about a person to the military intelligence services if they think they should be arrested or subjected to surveillance on the ground,” said Lin Htet Aung.

The central unit coordinates the work of dozens of small social media teams deployed across the country in regional military commands and battalions, according to defectors.

The military has imposed temporary internet restrictions since the coup and banned the use of Facebook in February, but 20 million people nationwide continued to use the platform in July, Facebook data shows . That figure compares with 28 million in January, with many users bypassing the ban by using virtual private networks (VPNs), the researchers said.

Nyi Thuta and Lin Htet Aung said those watching for signs of unrest were especially vigilant of any dissent among other soldiers in order to prevent defections. They said the “watch teams” were often made up in part of female soldiers, who are not allowed to play combat roles.

Before the elections and after the coup, soldiers and their families were asked to report their social media accounts to the military and were warned not to post any content criticizing the junta or supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the two defectors and another. military source.

Nyi Thuta said he and other soldiers who had left the army had been the target of online attacks.

Reuters examined two Telegram groups containing thousands of soldiers, who shared the identities, photos and information on social media of people they suspected to be “watermelons”, outside pro-military but supporting secretly Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party colors are red.

Lin Htet Aung and Nyi Thuta said they left the army of their own accord to protest the coup. Lin Htet Aung is now helping to train rebel forces in Myanmar.

Nyi Thuta, who declined to specify his location, said he had started an online support organization for military personnel who wished to defect called People’s Soldiers. The group, which has more than a quarter of a million Facebook subscribers, estimates that 2,000 soldiers have defected since the coup, a figure Reuters could not confirm.

“I use against them the tactics of information warfare that I learned in the military,” he said.

Reporting by Fanny Potkin and Wa Lone; Editing by Pravin Char

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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