Myanmar just became an example to the world of what happens when a functioning democracy allows conspiracy theories to become pervasive. On January 31st, the country’s military staged a coup against a democratically elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning politician. This coup was made possible due to the rampant amount of misinformation online, which made enough of the population is seemingly O.K. with their military assuming control of the government.
Depending on which outlets are queried, the country just experienced a coup or a necessary transition of power for stability’s sake. The reasons for the military’s claim for control should, unfortunately, seem rather familiar to Americans; there was alleged voter fraud by the political party that was voted out so they had to act to restore order and the rule of law. Thus, according to its backers, this action was inevitable in order to ensure stability throughout the country. Unlike the January 6, 2021 events at the U.S. Capitol, the Myanmar military didn’t need the general public to storm its government buildings. They were quickly able to arrest or detain the newly elected leadership and capture the infrastructure of the nation, allowing only the military-run TV channel to be on the air.
However, what sent shockwaves through the population more than anything in this evolving situation was the nationwide blocking of Facebook in an attempt to stop the coordination of anti-coup protestors. Mark Zuckerberg’s ubiquitous platform has shaped Myanmar society to the point where it has become indispensable to everyday life, and therein lies the core problem. Pushed out of Facebook, thousands in the country are taking to other social media platforms using hashtags such as #RespectOutVotes, #HearTheVoiceofMyanmar, and #SaveMyanmar.
It is commonly said that Facebook is the internet in Myanmar. The country did not even have social media for most of the 21st century, but it started to enter its society when the country started to liberalize in 2011. When Myanmar began to develop mobile infrastructure and its population came online, Facebook allowed its app to be used without incurring bandwidth charges from the two mobile carriers in the country and so it exploded in popularity. And, like any society that allows open and unchecked communication on social media, the problems with the lack of fact-checking and trusting a friend’s demonstrably false post over legitimate research publications started almost immediately. This was then amplified to outrageous levels by Myanmar’s military in the mid-2010s to the point where Facebook admitted their platform was used to incite violence and even an attempted genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslim population.
Myanmar is not the only country where misinformation online boils over into action. Extrajudicial killings fueled by social media have been occurring in the region for years – particularly in India and Sri Lanka. In the village of Rainpada, India, for example, a man was beaten to death after false rumors of kidnappings spread on WhatsApp.
Facebook, and other social media platforms, have consistently used humans’ innate characteristic of being social animals to make billions of dollars via datamining their online populations in order to sell that information to advertisers to improve their performance. In that business model the old adage of “If it’s free to you, you’re the product” rings true.
However, that standard doesn’t mean that Facebook and other Big Tech giants get a free pass to their responsibility to be good stewards for the world. Allowing an extremist Buddhist monk to go viral as he alleged that a Buddhist girl was attacked by a group of Muslim men, which then lead to scores of Muslims being murdered by mobs as retaliation is simply unacceptable.
For years, Facebook knew it had this problem. As 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were fleeing Myanmar in terror, a United Nations investigator in March of 2018 concluded that Facebook was the primary driver of misinformation that turned ethnic hatred into extremist violence. Facebook, the investigator said, had “turned into a beast” in Myanmar.
Now, the current Myanmar coup has the other “honor” of fueling even more rhetoric online globally for extremists, and even QAnon is getting in on the action. In 2018, the U.S. State Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons” report added Myanmar as one of the worst states for human trafficking and Facebook actually helped to create and exacerbate this problem. Because of the explosion of ethnic violence in Myanmar, thanks in no small part to the viral nature of fake news on Facebook, those 700,000 displaced persons exploded the human trafficking issues within the country which is why Myanmar was downgraded in the report.
One of the core conspiracies of QAnon is that child trafficking is tied to a cabal of leadership both in the United States and throughout the world. Add to this their belief that former President Trump will swoop in and arrest these cannibal pedophiles with the help of the military, and Myanmar’s coup begins to seem rather fitting with their narrative. Almost immediately, the QAnon community attempted to globalize their U.S.-centric conspiracy theory into the Myanmar election, and after the coup began.
Spreading like wildfire within QAnon websites, message boards, tweets, and videos were that Myanmar used Dominion and Smartmatic voting systems. However, Myanmar’s election is an entirely manual process using paper ballots. Following this is the belief that Myanmar’s military arrested these leaders to stop the cabal of pedophile leaders from continuing their horrific human trafficking, just like QAnon supporters hope the U.S. military will do here. This, of course, is assuming that Myanmar’s military had such intent, when in fact their driving of the attempted genocide actually caused the trafficking situation in the first place.
Conspiracy theories are as old as time. Typically, what keeps them marginalized and non-pervasive in society is that the conspiracy theorists are usually surrounded by people with opposing viewpoints that offer a bit of a “sanity check” to the theorist. Today, however, that has changed by virtue of the internet and social media.
At the beginning of 2020, I interviewed one of the leaders of the Flat Earth Movement and the discussion turned to the modern history of its membership. In the 1970s and 1980s, the movement grew to about 3,500 adherents at its peak and receded to about 100 members at the death of its founder, Charles Kenneth Johnson. With the introduction of internet message boards and social media, the membership exploded to the point where they have annual conventions and were even planning a cruise for 2020. No longer are these conspiracy theorists alone and dissuaded by their loved ones. Now they’re online and getting mental and emotional support from others just like them.
Myanmar is a national example of just how far conspiracy theories can go if left unchecked on social media, and how these platforms must own and remediate their culpability with this growing problem. If the world doesn’t get a handle on this situation, we’re looking at entering a social “Dark Age” and that should appeal to no one. Myanmar is a harbinger of what will come if we do not act now.