Myanmar junta drops propaganda on people from helicopters

Liam Scott

 

Spreading false and alarming news and fomenting dissent against the army are the outlandish charges under which a Japanese journalist has been held in Myanmar. He was detained while covering an anti-junta protest in Yangon last weekend. He is one of over 140 journalists, including at least five foreign journalists, who have been arrested since February, 2021, when the military, known as Tatmadaw, seized power. 

If arresting journalists might seem like a standard maneuver from the authoritarian playbook, the Myanmar military has already shown itself to be adept at navigating social media. Despite Facebook specifically banning the Myanmar military from its platform and setting up rules to ban Tatmadaw-linked business, various journalistic investigations have shown that its algorithms cannot prevent the deliberate spread of misinformation and harmful propaganda.

Rohingya refugees have sued Facebook for $150 billion for enabling the spread of hate speech by Myanmar’s military rulers, and even years after Facebook admitted to negligence it continues to allow vicious propaganda to proliferate through the site.

Platforms like Telegram and TikTok offer popular alternatives to get the message out. And if the Myanmar military’s message needs further amplification–well, it’s easy enough to just shower pamphlets from helicopters like so much poisonous confetti.

According to a report published on July 19 by the London-based research group Myanmar Witness, the dissemination of pro-military propaganda pamphlets had begun as early as April last year. The pamphlets, noted the report, “contain misleading or unverified information, which is often accompanied with a ‘fact-checked’ stamp.” 

The use of incendiary pamphlets by the military, pro-military forces, and nationalist groups has a long history in Myanmar, according to Richard Horsey, International Crisis Group’s (ICG) senior advisor on Myanmar. Many such pamphlets appeared in the 2010’s, at times of anti-Rohingya or broader anti-Muslim tensions and violence, and in the decades before that.

“They are part of a broader repertoire of propaganda. While much of this moved online from 2012, as Myanmar underwent one of the fastest internet and social media adoptions in history, offline forms of propaganda have persisted,” Horsey wrote in an email to me.

The use of hardcopy pamphlets underscores the extensive state of internet blackouts throughout Myanmar, according to Billy Ford, a program officer for the Myanmar team at the US Institute of Peace. Since August 2021, at least 31 townships in seven states and regions have experienced internet shutdowns.

“In an attempt to plug the gap that they created themselves, they are going back to the same methods that they used in the pre-2010 period — posters and placards and dropping pamphlets from airplanes just for their disinformation efforts,” Ford told me.

Beyond intimidation, the campaign has other functions, including, Horsey wrote, “signaling to pro-regime individuals and groups who they should target and strengthening their sense of impunity if they carry out violent actions.”

Myanmar’s military did not reply to a request for comment.

IN GLOBAL NEWS

“We did it,” crowed the “Fetrah” handle on Twitter. “With only two colors, they knew how small they are, the 6 colors’ communities.” The tweet was celebrating the supposed viral success of its anti-LGBTQ campaign, hence the reference to the six-banded pride flag. Apparently designed and planned by three Egyptian marketing professionals, the campaign asserts the existence of only two genders. Human rights campaigners have argued that it a hate group. It is already banned on Meta-owned platforms after garnering over half a million likes on its Facebook page last month but its Twitter page has not been blocked.

A Politico report showed that the checks social media giants routinely perform in the United States and European Union are absent on Arabic-language sites. It’s in keeping with the growing evidence that, despite their claims, companies like Meta simply do not devote resources to moderating content in different languages, despite enjoying substantial followings across the world. Examples of hate speech and conspiracies abound, many aggressively questioning and rejecting supposedly western values. Many such handles have also been promoting, the Politico report said, Russian misinformation in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.     

And speaking of Russian misinformation, among the more entertaining recent reports were claims by officials that Ukrainian soldiers had been turned into monsters in labs funded by the United States. According to the Russian daily, Kommersant,  a parliamentary commission (no less) was set up to investigate the activities of American labs in Ukraine. The upshot was that blood samples of captured Ukrainian soldiers had revealed these monstrous tendencies plus a cornucopia of diseases. 

It is presumably this level of disinformation that emerges from Russia’s infamous bot farms that operate through thousands of fake social media accounts. Ukrainian cyber police recently shut down one such farm comprising a million bots churning out Russian propaganda.

If bots are expected to churn out Russian propaganda, it is not expected that three aging, respectable Indian men should be accused essentially of performing the same function. But last month Ukraine’s “Center for Countering Disinformation,” set up to debunk Russian propaganda, put out a list of useful idiots, including U.S. politicians Tulsi Gabbard and Rand Paul. The three Indians on the list included the distinguished journalist Saeed Naqvi, the former Indian ambassador to Russia, P.S. Raghavan, and Sam Pitroda, a tech millionaire, who has served as an advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
According to the Center for Countering Disinformation, Pitroda had argued that the “world should negotiate with Putin.” While Saeed Naqvi accused the west of “waging a propaganda campaign against Russia.” Raghavan when asked by Indian news website The Wire about his place on the list said he had “no comments to offer on the exercise, except my mystification.”  

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.