By around 6 a.m. on February 1, it was clear to Thinzar Shunlei Yi that the coup d’etat had begun. Since November, the Burmese army, known as the Tatmadaw, had been disputing the results of Myanmar’s general election, in which its civilian proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, had been roundly beaten. After the Electoral Commission threw out baseless allegations of voter fraud, military leaders began to hint that they might take matters into their own hands. But Yi, a youth activist and broadcaster, didn’t take the threat seriously. “I was laughing about it; I thought the military wouldn’t be that stupid,” she said. “People were not prepared. Mentally, we weren’t prepared.”
Phone networks around the capital, Naypyidaw, and the largest city, Yangon, went down at around 3 a.m., and TV stations went off the air. In the blackout, members of parliament from the ruling National League for Democracy party, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, were rounded up and detained. One of the few witnesses to the coup in progress was an aerobics instructor, Khing Hnin Wai, filming an exercise video outside the Assembly of the Union as military vehicles swept toward the seat of government.
The blackout, which continued sporadically throughout the day, was only part of an effort by the Tatmadaw to control the flow of information in Myanmar during its takeover. Even under the civilian government, the military maintained significant influence over the country’s politics. The military is automatically allocated 25% of seats in parliament, controls much of the economy, and enjoys the support of many conservative Buddhist groups.
The Burmese military and groups affiliated with it have been repeatedly accused of using social media misinformation and hate speech to manipulate public opinion, including to justify attacks on Rohingya Muslims in the north of the country, acts that the United Nations said amount to genocide.
In the information vacuum left by the closure of mainstream media outlets, rumors and lies spread quickly. With reports that the Facebook pages of ministers and the NLD had been taken over by the Tatmadaw, people were unsure whom they could trust.
“People can’t get real information,” Yi said. “They restored the internet but not the television. On Facebook there is no legitimate news verification, there’s no accountability, so now misinformation is growing dangerously. There is a lot of hate speech, a lot of fake accounts.”
The internet was sporadically available throughout the day of the coup. Mobile data services were very unreliable, but some people found their ISPs still operating and were able to connect to Wi-Fi at home and in offices.
Around midday on Monday, a letter was published by the NLD’s Facebook account, purportedly on behalf of Suu Kyi, encouraging people to take to the streets in protest against the military overthrow. Some activists were nervous. As one told Rest of World, it felt like a trap designed to engineer clashes between coup supporters and opponents. Their suspicions seemed to have been confirmed a few hours later, when Kyi Toe, the NLD’s official spokesperson, posted that the NLD’s official page had been taken over by the Tatmadaw and that the letter was a hoax.
Not long afterward, though, rumors began circulating on Twitter that Kyi Toe’s page was under military control, and the letter was in fact genuine. Rest of World was unable to independently verify which version of events was correct. Some detained MPs were able to post to social media — mostly just to say that they hadn’t been harmed — but these too were considered compromised. “Hostage statements,” one activist called them.
“This could become really problematic. It could cause fear and discord within the general public,” said John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at civil society group Fortify Rights. “I think it’s not unfounded to think that these MPs are getting rounded up, and maybe their cellphones and social media accounts are being used by the military.”
Civil society is geared to expect misinformation coming from the new junta, since the military has a history of using false claims and doctored or out-of-context videos and images to deceive the public, as well as hate speech against minorities.
In 2018, Facebook banned Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar’s armed forces, and the Tatmadaw’s television channel, Myawaddy, from its platform. In response to a surge in misinformation in the run-up to the 2020 elections, the company put in place an experimental new approach to tackling falsehoods, which penalized pages associated with the military and with fundamentalist Buddhists who tried to sow division between religious groups.
“[The Tatmadaw] continue[s] to manipulate information, including on Facebook,” Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, an activist group, said. “It is urgent that social media companies take steps to deny the military access to their networks.”
Rafael Frankel, Facebook’s director of public policy for APAC Emerging Countries, said in a statement that the company was “closely monitoring political events in Myanmar as they unfold” and that it would continue to remove content that breaks its rules on hate speech, incitement to violence, and misinformation, including anything that attempts to delegitimize the result of the election.
Social media has also been the venue for a nascent fight against the coup. A Facebook group, Civil Disobedience Movement, had more than 70,000 followers by the afternoon of February 2. In Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, people were mobilizing in solidarity under the “Milk Tea Alliance” banner that united pro-democracy activists across Asia. In Yangon, digital rights activists were giving their colleagues advice on how to use Telegram and Signal, the encrypted messaging apps, in anticipation of a crackdown.
During the last military junta, which lasted from 1962 to 2011, activists were routinely rounded up and imprisoned. There were signs on Tuesday that this was already happening. The U.K.-based Burmese activist Wai Hnin Pwint Thon posted a video that she said was of her activist father, Mya Aye being taken away by the military. Mya Aye was one of the leaders of the 8888 movement, which began mass protests against the regime on August 8, 1988. Several activists who spoke to Rest of World had already taken the precaution of going into hiding.
Yi said she hasn’t felt safe in Myanmar since speaking out against the military and the civilian government in 2017. She has become accustomed to threats of death and rape online and offline, but nonetheless, she packed up and hurried to a safe house on Monday. “I relocated, but I don’t feel safe at all,” she said. “Anything can happen to us. I feel a mounting threat … but, I’m used to this environment.”