During 2018-21, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) jointly monitored social media in Myanmar, interviewed users of Facebook and other applications, built a database on armed conflict, and analyzed the use of social media in armed conflict.
Findings: We found, first, that the primary function of social media for Myanmar's non-state armed groups was communication with their own ethnic constituents. Facebook provided them with an inexpensive platform for conveying an image of statehood through flags, parades, policing, health and education services. Some groups also used digital means for command-and-control in combat, and for external propaganda. Supporters of conflicting parties often used Facebook to spread hatred, fear, and threats against the other side.
A second finding was that Myanmar's armed forces (Tatmadaw) were unable to mold public opinion through social media. Its commanders were quick to discover the utility of Facebook. Yet from 2018, when Facebook closed down a number of military accounts in response to the killing and expulsion of Rohingya, the Tatmadaw's use of Facebook was hampered. After its 1 February 2021 coup, the military tried, with limited success, to suppress social media through bans and internet shutdowns. The emerging protest movement made use of VPN and encrypted communication and was able to dominate Facebook. Myanmar's military has no leverage over the Facebook company since it runs its Myanmar operation from Singapore. Most Tatmadaw supporters have resorted to Telegram or VKontakte for communication among themselves.
A third finding, from a PhD project based on interviews with civil society organisations, is that social media affords organisations with new opportunities to counter sexual and gendered-based violence. High visibility on social media supports their awareness-raising aims, and anonymity facilitates survivors' access to support. However, state censorship and online harassment of activists and survivors constrain organisations' social media use.
Our fourth finding is that Facebook has become an influential, independent actor in the country's armed conflicts. The role it played for hate speech against the Rohingya in 2016-17 came as a shock to the company. After banning military-controlled accounts in 2018, it also banned four non-state armed groups in 2019, and increased its ability to detect and remove postings seen to violate its community standards. After the military coup, Facebook took down additional military accounts, while remaining open to criticism of the coup.
Output: Our main academic output is the open access 'Pretending to be States: The Use of Facebook by Armed Groups in Myanmar,' Journal of Contemporary Asia (4 May 2021), which by 10 Feb. 2022 had 3,763 views. Other key outputs, funded also by other sources, are MIPS' Township-based Conflict Monitoring System (TCMS) database; MIPS monthly Peace & Security Briefs; weekly Security Briefs, and MIPS Annual Peace & Security Reviews for 2018, 2019, and 2020-21 (with a foreword by Stein Tønnesson).
Impact: The main impact of the project has been its contribution to a fact-focused, independent research environment at MIPS in Yangon, with solid academic credentials. MIPS has so far survived the military coup and its violent aftermath with reduced staff while being investigated by the regime. In 2021, it gave up publishing its annual review for 2020 but published a combined review for 2020-21 on 10 Feb 2022. Journalists, media influencers, company executives, government officials, armed group leaders, civil society activists and diplomats all use MIPS data and analyses. This has somewhat reduced the scope for lies and exaggerations in a heavily polarized environment. In Norway, the project has allowed PRIO to be active in debates about Myanmar and try in vain to dissuade Telenor from selling its Myanmar company.
Prospects: Our project was born amidst despair with the anti-Rohingya campaign, the stalled peace process, and a frosty stalemate between the civilian and military parts of government after March 2016. We were fascinated by the digital revolution that began in 2014 with the dissolution of the telecom monopoly. It led to tough competition between four telecom providers in building towers, laying fiber and offering cheap services on smartphones. In social media, there was little competition: Facebook dominated.
The future both of MIPS and Facebook is uncertain. Many intellectuals, researchers and activists have sought refuge abroad. This time, Myanmar's diaspora is able to communicate with friends and family inside the country on Facebook as well as through encrypted apps.
As a research topic, social media and armed conflict has lost none of its importance. We hope our work will stimulate further study both inside and outside Myanmar.
16.294 conflict events registered in the Township-based Data Management System (TCMS). 1.2 million FB views of launch.
Use by government official, armed group leaders, civil society activists of MIPS data
Use by other researchers of the terminology and methods developed by MIPS
About 150 MIPS briefings of international representatives
Briefing of Facebook company at their request
A MIPS overview of demands raised at peace conferences may be useful if conflict parties again start talking
Facebook's removal of violence-inciting content more targeted after it got access to MIPS data
Telenor was exposed to informed criticism for the sale of its Myanmar company
Potential impact: MIPS may be positioned to provide input if the parties start talking
The impact of ICT and social media on conflict is a new and fertile field of research. Myanmar is an ideal case for studying causal links between ICT and conflict since: a) The country has many armed groups who have recently got access to social media, b) Some of them fight while others have signed ceasefire agreements, and c) There has been an explosion in the use of social media since 2013. Suddenly, Facebook has become the dominant means of communication in a country with few landlines, and where only a tiny minority has ever used e-mail. The project explores the ways by which the new social media have shaped conflict dynamics, thus either driving conflict or helping create peace. We interview representatives of the country's ethnic armed groups and of the national army. We monitor their use of social media, and we have designed a web-based application to collect data about clashes and violent incidents, including gender-based and other violence against civilians. The project is led by senior research fellow Stein Tønnesson (PRIO) in cooperation with a research team led by Dr Min Zaw Oo at the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security (MIPS). The project includes a PhD at PRIO, focussing on gender. The method is mainly inductive, with the aim to establish various ways by which social media have affected armed conflict behaviour and the country's peace process. We ask questions about how and for what purposes social media are used, about interaction between commanders, officers and troops and about the way the ethnic armed groups interact with the civilian population in areas under their control. Emphasis is given to the impact of social media on the prevalence of armed fighting, measured in incidents and fatalities, and we seek to draw lessons about how social media may contribute to peace. Our empirical research is used as a basis for contributing to existing theory about conflict duration and termination.