Digital contention in post-coup Myanmar

In the digital manifestation of coup-related contention in Myanmar, the military both projects an image of itself as championing “true democracy” and reframes resistance activities as destructive for political stability. On the other hand, dissident forces focus their online activism primarily on anti-military narratives and broadcasting protest activities in order to motivate and mobilise grassroots resistance to the coup. While online anti-military content has been more effective at attracting engagement than pro-military content, this gap has narrowed over time. This suggests that dissidents have increasingly confronted digital barriers to mobilising despite widespread public support.

Since March 2021 we have used CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring platform owned by Meta, to collect the 20,000 most viral public Burmese posts from all Burmese-language Facebook pages and groups per day. We then created a random sample of 5,200 posts over 13 weeks, from the beginning of March to the end of May 2021, to obtain a general understanding of digital contention in the early months following the coup. As Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform in the country, examining Facebook content allows us to capture the essence of Burmese social media.

Existing reports claim the Tatmadaw has actively employed public and covert propaganda to manipulate narratives that frame protestors as criminals, in order to turn public opinion against the resistance and in favour of the military. In our original dataset, we find similar content across pro-military pages and groups. This includes labeling Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) participants and ethnic armed groups as riotous; blaming CDM doctors for the 3rd wave of COVID-19; spreading disinformation accusing activists of destroying schools, universities and monasteries, and of attacking innocent civilians; and even framing people who withdraw money from their bank accounts as sabotaging the military administration.

However, pro-military online content was contained and had limited influence. Only 1% of total posts or 3% of coup-related posts were pro-military, and most of these posts attracted under 200 interactions. An important question is whether social media simply reflect a pre-existing lack of support for the military or whether, by promulgating a variety of voices that debunk military propaganda, these platforms themselves generate greater distrust in the Tatmadaw’s rhetoric.

In contrast to pro-military content, most dissident content highlights resistance activities and military repression. It is also relatively prevalent among coup-related Facebook posts, being shared by various types of mainly political and news-oriented pages and groups. Two NUG-related pages are among the top 10 pages with viral posts. Six activist groups, three of which are NUG-related, are among the top 10 groups with viral posts.

As a result, dissident posts received an average of 1000 interactions. The most popular post was CRPH’s announcement that they would form a parallel government, with more than 300k interactions.