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<nettime> FP > Christian Cary > Burma Gives a Big Thumbs-Up to Facebook
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<nettime> FP > Christian Cary > Burma Gives a Big Thumbs-Up to Facebook


< http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/13/burma-gives-a-big-thumbs-up-to-facebook/ >

Burma Gives a Big Thumbs-Up to Facebook

   Four years ago Facebook didn't exist in Burma. Now it's the country's
   most important source of information.

     * By Christian Caryl -- Christian Caryl is the author of
       Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. A
       former reporter at Newsweek, he is a senior fellow at the Legatum
       Institute (which co-publishes Democracy Lab with Foreign Policy)
       and is a contributing editor at the National Interest. He is also a
       senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the
       Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a regular contributor to
       the New York Review of Books.

     * November 13, 2015 - 5:11 pm

     * christian.caryl
     *  {AT} ccaryl

   Burma Gives a Big Thumbs-Up to Facebook

   As the vote count draws to a close, it's clear that Burma's
   long-suffering opposition has scored a landslide victory in
   Sunday's historic national election. And the leader of that opposition
   knows whom to thank. As she was explaining the reasons for her party's
   remarkable triumph in an interview with the BBC this week, Nobel
   Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said this: "And then of course there's
   the communications revolution. This has made a huge difference.
   Everybody gets onto the net and informs everybody else of what is
   happening. And so it's much more difficult for those who wish to commit
   irregularities to get away with it."

   She could have been a little more specific, though. When people here in
   Burma refer to the "Internet," what they often have in mind is Facebook
   -- the social media network that dominates all online activity in this
   country to a degree unimaginable anywhere else. When President Thein
   Sein decided to issue a statement conceding victory to Suu Kyi's
   triumphant League for National Democracy (NLD), he used the Facebook
   page of the presidential spokesman to do it. The army published a
   similar concession statement on its own Facebook page. And when Suu Kyi
   held a press conference a few days before the election, millions of
   people tuned in via Facebook (since state-run media did not deign to
   show it).

   Both Suu Kyi and her opponents were just following the eyeballs. Though
   the company declines to provide statistics on its Burma operations,
   experts put the number of registered Facebook users (in this country of
   50 million) at 6.4 million. That's up from more or less zero until the
   fall of 2011 -- since Facebook didn't even officially exist in the
   country until then. Facebook's Messenger app also enjoys huge
   popularity thanks to its reputation for good security -- an important
   selling point in a country with a long history of aggressive government
   surveillance. (In Burma, at least, you can use Messenger without
   actually having an account, and many Burmese seem to be doing just
   that.) "Facebook has become an important and growing part of people's
   lives in Myanmar," says Facebook representative Clare Wareing, using
   the official name for Burma, "and we are humbled by the ways we see
   people in Myanmar connect in big and small ways." (Wareing works for
   the Australian branch of the company, which is responsible for
   operations in Burma.)

   Yet even if the powers-that-be have tried to harness it to their own
   ends, it's indisputably Aung San Suu Kyi and her party that have been
   the biggest beneficiaries of Facebook's startling rise. That's because
   television and radio -- the means by which most Burmese get their
   information -- remain firmly under state control, as do large swathes
   of the print media. Facebook, which arrived in Burma about the time
   that the government set about dismantling its long-standing system of
   censorship, has given the opposition a crucial way of closing the gap.

   Than Htut Aung, Chairman and CEO of Eleven Media Group, says that his
   company -- one of the country's biggest private media conglomerates --
   has distinguished itself from its state-run rivals by its generous
   coverage of the NLD, which is why its Facebook page now boasts 4.5
   million followers. (Eleven Media's website, by contrast, has a
   negligible audience.) When a member of the ruling party insulted Suu
   Kyi in a Facebook post a few months ago, the corresponding report on
   Eleven Media's Facebook page received a mind-boggling 20,000
   comments.

   It's the pluralism of Facebook, says Aung, that has made it the
   dominant source of information for young Burmese: "Six months ago, it
   was people in their forties and fifties who were interested in
   politics. Now it's the people in their twenties and thirties who are
   interested in the election -- and that's due mainly to Facebook."

   Yet it's not just the usual suspects who depend on the social media
   network. The proliferation of smartphones extends far beyond the
   educated elite (including, increasingly, people in the countryside, who
   make up the majority of Burma's citizens). Htay Aung, 29, a fishmonger
   who works at an open-air market in Rangoon's Insein district, accesses
   Facebook through his Huawei smartphone. Asked whether he's ever used
   Google, he shakes his head with a smile. "I use my phone to make calls
   and to look at Facebook," he says. He follows posts from 30 or so of
   his friends and a few online newspapers. He shares all of the news he
   gets from Facebook with his wife, who also works in the market.

   The sudden dominance of Facebook has much to do with the peculiarities
   of development in a country that has gone through "twenty years of
   digital development in two years," says Yan Naung Oak of
   Phandeeyar, a non-profit group that tries to harness technology
   for social causes. As recently as three years ago, he notes, Internet
   access and mobile phones were virtually unknown in the country, which
   has spent most of the past sixty years in a political and economic deep
   freeze thanks to a tiny coterie of military leaders who kept it under
   tight control -- until five years ago, when they started loosening the
   reins.

   Two years ago, the government issued the country's first mobile phone
   licenses, and that, combined with an influx of cheap Chinese handsets,
   enabled ordinary Burmese to leapfrog from a decrepit landline network
   straight to 21st-century mobile Internet. Phandeeyar's David Madden
   says that what makes Burma unique is that it's the "first country this
   size to come online via smartphones."

   In an environment consisting almost entirely of novice users,
   Facebook's ease of use (and the ease with which pretty much anyone can
   set up an account) has given it a huge advantage. (For a while, says
   Yan Naung Oak, certain shops in Rangoon specialized in setting up
   Facebook accounts for customers for a fee of 2,000 kyats, about $1.60
   at current rates.) Yet its dominance also brings concerns. Some experts
   worry that its effective monopoly will weigh on media diversity
   and quash urgently needed innovation.

   And then there's the problem of incendiary rhetoric. It's an issue
   familiar to online communities everywhere, but it's a particularly
   urgent one in Burma, where sixty years of dictatorship have stored up a
   toxic brew of sectarian tensions and long-festering grievances that
   have only just begun to emerge into the open. The movement of
   ultranationalist Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha has used
   Facebook as an instrument for the spread of its rants against the
   Muslim minority, which it views as a threat to the dominant Buddhist
   culture.

   When a leading Ma Ba Tha activist published an anti-Muslim smear on his
   Facebook page recently, Yan Naing, a Muslim lawyer in Rangoon, reported
   the post to the police, citing a law against online hate speech.
   "Facebook is a big platform," he says. "In our country most young
   people are using Facebook, so a lot of them have seen the post. It has
   a lot of impact -- and a lot of Muslim people are very upset." (He
   hastens to add that "real Buddhists," whom he describes as "very good
   and kind," would never lower themselves to insult another religion like
   this.) Phandeeyar, the civic tech organization, has launched an online
   campaign that features a traditional Burmese folk character as a mascot
   to promote the message "think before you post."

   It remains to be seen whether Burma can find ways of coping with issues
   -- like how to safeguard free speech from the extremist ranters who
   exploit it -- that bedevil even mature democracies. A more diverse
   online ecosystem might not be a bad idea, either. For the moment,
   though, Burma's love affair with Facebook shows no signs of cooling
   off.


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