On June 14, Cape Diamond, a journalist covering Myanmar for global media outlets, posted a link to a Human Rights Watch report covering abuses by the country’s military. Within hours, there were more than 2,000 quote tweets of his original post, mostly a mess of hashtags — #ReleaseTheDetainees, #EndSexualViolence, #CrimesAgainstHumanity, and #June14Coup.
This happens every time he —or almost any recognizable voice on Myanmar — tweets. Before a February 1 coup d’état thrust the country into the global news cycle, the Myanmar Twittersphere was largely populated by international journalists and academics. Over the last four months, many of their accounts have surged in followers; their tweets about Myanmar are quote-tweeted hundreds or thousands of times. The retweets are usually accompanied by the hashtags #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar and #[Date]Coup; often there are comments calling for a no-fly zone over the country, an arms embargo, or a U.N. intervention.
The retweeting accounts look like bots: Their handles are often just a string of numbers, their profile pictures are a mixture of protest-related graphics and Korean pop stars, and their tweets often use identical language and emojis. But behind these anonymous accounts are real people.
These so-called “keyboard fighters” have taken it upon themselves to draw global attention to the ways the people of Myanmar are suffering under the military junta. Congregating on Facebook groups and Telegram channels, they have built a dynamic citizen movement to counter the regime’s misinformation operations and propaganda.
Among the most active groups is Myanmar’s K-pop fandom, who are social media-savvy and have wide international networks. In recent years, K-pop fans have proved adept in mobilizing social media users around the globe for other causes, whether that’s supporting Thailand’s pro-democracy movement by fundraising for protective equipment and legal support, drowning out right-wing critics of Black Lives Matter in the U.S., or sabotaging Donald Trump rallies.
Along with other keyboard fighters, Myanmar’s K-pop community is braving internet restrictions and blackouts, social media blocks, risk of arrest, and rising online surveillance, to ensure that protesters are kept informed, that the regime’s rights abuses are documented, and that the world sees #WhatIsHappeningInMyanmar.
These are the stories of four of Myanmar’s keyboard fighters, as told to Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein. All four individuals are being identified using pseudonyms to protect them from reprisals.
Kay Zin, 19, Admin of the Facebook page and Telegram channel Twitter Team for Revolution, Yangon
When the coup happened, my friends and I decided to use our social media experience to bring international attention to what is happening in Myanmar. As K-pop and idol fans, we are very used to social media and Twitter.
We already had a large following from two Facebook pages we administered, Kimjuncotton’s Kingdom, named after the leader of the K-pop band EXO, and BJYX Myanmar Fan Club, named after a combination of the fan names for the Chinese actors Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan. On February 4, we established the Facebook page Fandom Union, and in March, we restarted the page as Twitter Team for Revolution. We run a Telegram channel with the same name too.
In the first days after the coup, hashtags were all over the place. Some people were using #SaveMyanmar and some were using #HelpMyanmar to convey the same message, which is not effective. We wanted to promote hashtags about the coup so that they would be trending on Twitter. Getting inspiration from the Thai protest movement, when the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInThailand was widely used, we created two major hashtags, #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar and #[Date]Coup, and we encouraged our followers to tweet using these hashtags each day.
Before the coup, there weren’t many Myanmar Twitter users, and now, people are just getting used to the app. Through our page and channel, we explain Twitter functions and terms like tweet, quote tweet, and hashtag, and give guidelines to new or inexperienced users. Lots of people’s accounts are suspended because they tweet too rapidly or tweet images of graphic violence without blurring them or adding trigger warnings, so we guide them on how to avoid getting suspended or how to recover their accounts. Another common error that people make, which affects Twitter trending, is to misspell hashtags, for example typing “L” instead of “I.”
We also organize mass trending parties, where we call on our followers to tweet about a certain issue at a certain time. When we do this, we share background information with our followers so they can learn about the issue.
We run our page and channel with six admins. Two people are responsible for replying to our followers over Facebook Messenger, three people take charge of responding to comments under our posts, and I deal with the content and guidelines.
Every night, we post about what content and hashtags to tweet the next day. Some words are new for us, so sometimes we produce incorrect hashtags. When we make mistakes, we sort it out seriously and apologize on our page.
Most of our followers are 16- to 21-year-old fangirls and fanboys who follow K-pop bands like EXO and BTS and idols like Sehun, Chanyeol, and Jungkook. We also follow the Myanmar celebrity Paing Takhon, who was arrested in April for his involvement in the anti-coup protest movement.
Before the coup, people mocked K-pop fans, but now we’re the ones actively taking part in online activism. As people realized the importance of social media in bringing global attention to Myanmar’s issues, they have started to understand us.
The term “keyboard fighter” can have negative connotations, as a lot of keyboard fighters produce misinformation. But as keyboard fighters, we can also play a vital role in the activist movement. We are giving awareness about what is happening in Myanmar to international communities, so that the voices of people in Myanmar don’t die out.
Yon, 19, University student, Yangon
I wasn’t interested in politics until the coup. My parents sometimes shared political news, but I didn’t really pay attention. I only posted about my political stance last year during the national elections, when I voted for the first time. I wasn’t an online activist because I thought our country was peaceful.
After the coup, I started helping out with online fundraising for people displaced by conflict and for the Civil Disobedience Movement, and helping new Twitter users get accustomed to using the platform.
In Myanmar, people mostly use Facebook, but we K-pop fandom used Twitter way before the coup. We know that international communities use Twitter more than Facebook. It is the fastest way to get international attention and we want the world to know what’s happening in Myanmar. If Myanmar’s issues trend worldwide, ordinary people will notice.
I copy a lot of my tweets and hashtags from Telegram channels, such as 2021 Revolution Tweets. I also retweet articles that I read, such as articles about how we can create a federal democratic union, which brings peace and harmony between our diverse ethnic people. I don’t share toxic posts.
To help identify misinformation, I use fact-checking pages on Facebook, and Telegram channels, which warn us if posts are fake. We can also check images on Google Lens to make sure they are what they say they are. If I am not sure about a post, I don’t share it, because if I make a mistake, everyone who follows will copy the mistake. I only share from pages I trust, and if I find out a post is incorrect, I delete it immediately.
I only have one Facebook account, but I have three Twitter accounts, because accounts can be suspended when I tweet too much. I use my real name on Facebook, but I don’t use my real name or photo on Twitter. As a fangirl, I use nicknames. Currently, I use a Save Myanmar photo, so that when people see my profile, they may get awareness.
In February, I protested, but later on there were shootings, so I decided to become a keyboard fighter to raise awareness to the international community. There are many people resisting the coup, but the regime is trying to cover it up. To post about the protests and news in real time, keyboard fighters play a vital role. I want the international community to know that there is no peace in Myanmar, and people are still resisting and facing danger every day.
Ja Ra, 57, Schoolteacher, Kachin State
On the morning of the coup, phone lines and the internet were cut, so I learned about what had happened on the military-run TV channel. I was so surprised. Soon afterwards, people started to protest, but I wasn’t that interested yet. There were protests back in 1988, but they went quiet fairly quickly. I thought this time would be the same, but it wasn’t. A massive amount of people believe in this movement, and it surprised me.
I listened to a sermon on Facebook which included Psalm 1:1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” After hearing that, I decided I should stand on the side of justice, and I began following the news on Facebook.
I don’t know much about how to use a phone, and before the coup I wasn’t very active on social media. I mostly used it for posting and sharing spiritual and religious things. But after the coup, if I saw a Facebook post which said to share something, I would share it, so people in other areas could get the information quickly and get encouragement too.
If I see a post that says there are police in a certain place, I’ll share it, so protesters can avoid getting arrested. If I see a post that says a boy or girl was arrested, and that we should speak out for them, I’ll share it too. I also share posts requesting [international military] intervention in Myanmar under R2P [the Responsibility to Protect]. I saw one post that said if it reached a certain number of shares, R2P would come, so I shared it.
I don’t know what hashtags are. If a post says it needs to be shared that day, I just share it. Some posts say, “Please copy and share.” I read it first and if I like it and think it is good, I share it.
I heard that if the State Administration Council, the military administration, checks your phone and finds out that you shared posts against them, you can be arrested. Therefore, I recently deleted all my politically-sensitive posts since the coup, and changed my name and profile picture as well. Since the political situation has worsened, I have started being more careful with what I share as well.
Currently, we cannot express our opinions freely and openly. We have to pretend all the time. We cannot act with our own will; we always have to fear the higher-ups and follow their orders. I want the younger generation to have freedom to be creative and to make their own decisions.
At first, I shared things because I thought other people should know what’s going on in Myanmar. Later on, people gave us a name: “keyboard fighters.” I do this because I cannot go to the front lines to protest. I have to look after my mother who is unwell. By sharing information from home, I can at least do my part when others are risking their lives.
Sebastian Htoo, 22, Creator of Myanmar Spring Revolution, Yangon
When the coup happened, I went out to protest for the first few weeks with my family, but then security forces started shooting people, and my mom didn’t let me go out anymore. I couldn’t stop, so I decided to use my education in web development. Those days, WiFi and mobile data were still available, so I was always watching live videos. My friend said, “Why not start a database, a way to document everything that’s going on?”
My site basically serves as a content hub. I have links to crimes and police brutality, ways to make a donation to the Civil Disobedience Movement, news sources and journalists to follow, ways to get around internet censorship like how to download VPNs and protester toolkits, and a mental health guide. In total, I have had around 8,000 visitors to the site. It’s not that high-profile yet.
I have two goals: to document human rights violations and to introduce anyone who wants to know what’s going on in Myanmar and why it’s such a bad situation. We had a similar situation back in 1988, and when I tried to research it, I couldn’t find videos, photos, or much evidence. I wanted to change that. I want the website to be a way for future generations to remember how it happened, so it doesn’t get lost in history.
I had a job when I started the website, so while I was working, I would surf Facebook, and my friend would also note down anything major that had happened. We tried to bookmark sources during the day, and at night we would compile everything.
The military kept blocking the internet and I had to use a VPN to keep myself safe, and layers of security so they couldn’t track the files I uploaded. That caused the internet to slow down even more. Even though the internet stopped around 1 a.m. every night, I had to finish around 12 a.m., so that I would have time to upload.
I’m an IT student, but I only learned the basics. I had to research the rest on my own. School gave me a foundation and I just built upon that. I’ve always been active on Reddit, so I had some help from the web developing community. Reddit is perfect for me because it keeps me anonymous. After I completed the website, most of the traffic to it comes from Reddit.
The military is fighting on multiple fronts now. They have the Civil Disobedience Movement and the battles with ethnic armed organizations and civilian defense forces, and now they have the online front also. Being a keyboard warrior is a great way to raise awareness and it’s generally safe.
The risk of online activism is that there can be false news and false flags, like when people were accusing the military of chemical attacks. When I saw that news, I knew it was wrong, because when I reverse Google searched the images, the photos were taken from unrelated websites. These kinds of stories can create anger, but I don’t believe it’s that effective. We know better than to keep spreading false news like the junta.
“Keyboard fighter” used to have negative connotations. People used to associate it with internet trolls and people who pick fights on the internet. But now, with this movement, we’re fighting online. The military uses propaganda online, and we have to find a way to combat that. Our way of using Twitter or Facebook hashtags creates more awareness, a way for people to understand what’s happening in Myanmar. It’s not shameful to be called a keyboard warrior anymore.