Junta defectors detail online disinformation campaign in Myanmar

Junta defectors detail online disinformation campaign in Myanmar


As Myanmar’s military seeks to put down protest on the streets, a parallel battle is playing out on social media, with the junta using fake accounts to denounce opponents and press its message that it seized power to save the nation from election fraud, eight people with knowledge of the tactics said.

The army, which was banned by the country’s dominant online platform Facebook after the February 1, 2021, coup, has tasked thousands of soldiers with conducting what is widely referred to in the military as “information combat,” according to the people, who include four military sources.

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

“Soldiers are asked to create several fake accounts and are given content segments and talking points that they have to post,” said Capt. Nyi Thuta, who defected from the army to join rebel forces at the end of February. “They also monitor activity online 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 chief Min Aung Hlaing.

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

The eight people with knowledge of the social media drive all asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of retaliation, except for Nyi Thuta and Capt. Lin Htet Aung, who defected from the army in April.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, is pushing its campaign online even as it puts down protests on the streets, nine months after it ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying her National League for Democracy had fraudulently won the November 2020 vote. International election watchdogs said in a May report that the vote was fair.

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

In over 100 cases, the messages or videos were duplicated across dozens of copycat accounts within minutes, as well as on online groups, purported fan channels for Myanmar celebrities and sports teams and purported news outlets, data from Facebook-owned online tracking tool CrowdTangle showed.

Posts often referred to people who opposed the junta as “enemies of the state” and “terrorists,” and variously said they wanted to destroy the army, the country and the Buddhist religion.

Many opposition activists are using some similar methods, creating duplicate accounts to fill “Twitter teams” with hundreds of thousands of members and making anti-junta hashtags trend, according to the review and four activist sources.

While such tactics are common worldwide, they can be particularly influential in Myanmar, according to four researchers who said the population receives most of its information via social media rather than directly from established news outlets, and that Facebook is regularly used by over half the population.