The unprecedented and rapid explosion in social media use in Myanmar has left many young people – particularly girls, and those from ethnic and religious minority groups – especially vulnerable to online sexual harassment and the negative impacts of fake news and hate speech, a report by the University of Sydney and Save the Children shows.
For the study, researchers asked hundreds of children and young people across two conflict-affected states in Myanmar how they used social media and the impact it had on their lives.
The findings – published in the report, Mobile Myanmar: The impact of social media on young people in conflict-affected regions of Myanmar – reveal a serious lack of digital literacy skills among the population, both young and old.
The researchers found that many social media users did not have the skills or experience to identify misinformation or effectively respond to online bullying despite a widespread recognition that they pose problems for personal and community wellbeing.
Dr Brad Ridout, lead report author and a cyberpsychologist at the University of Sydney, said:
“This research tells us that while trust in news on social media is generally low due to the proliferation of fake news, Myanmar youth spend hours on social media every day.
"They use it as a tool to connect, learn, and share and seek information, including about their mental health,” Dr Ridout said.
“But with little mental health support currently available, our findings present promising opportunities to develop mobile apps and online support services to connect Myanmar youth with the vital information and counselling they so desperately need.”
Myanmar is a test case for what can happen when the pace of internet use outstrips the development of digital literacy and cyber safety skills.
While many surveyed highlighted the positive contribution social media made in their lives, young people across Myanmar told researchers that repeated exposure to fake news and propaganda targeting specific communities meant they suffered from ‘hate speech fatigue’. This made them less likely to use inbuilt reporting and blocking functions that help to combat the spread of dangerous and divisive language.
As well, many young people responded to online hate speech and fake news with emojis or comments such as “haha”, unaware that doing so served to give the offending post more traction, based on Facebook’s own algorithms.
According to the UN, Facebook has come under criticism for helping create an environment in Myanmar where “extremist discourse can thrive, human rights violations are legitimised and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated”.
Hate speech was widely cited by young social media users in this study, with displaced Muslim youth in Rakhine State the most likely to report being impacted by it mentally and emotionally.
Myanmar is a test case for what can happen when the pace of internet use outstrips the development of digital literacy and cyber safety skills
Widespread online sexual harassment was resoundingly reported by girls and women surveyed. They described harassment that echoed their offline experiences, including male strangers trying to form relationships with them through social media, sending inappropriate sexual content and extorting them for money, naked photos or declarations of love.
The use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts is well-documented. But until now very little has been known about the extent of gender-based violence and sexual harassment many girls and women in Myanmar’s conflict-affected regions face. Nearly every girl/woman surveyed in the report had a story of online harassment to tell.
One 18-year-old girl from Rakhine State told researchers: “Many girls encounter online harassment. For example, someone photoshopped a girl’s picture and then created a fake account with her sexy picture. When people saw this, they misunderstood and thought bad things about this girl.”
Respondents said they generally did not have the skills or knowledge to address online sexual harassment via the reporting, blocking and privacy features of the social media platforms they use – mostly Facebook – in large part because they did not know how to use them.
Andy Nilsen, Director of Save the Children’s advocacy and campaigns in Myanmar, said local youths used social media in a different way to other young people around the globe.
“On the one hand we see promising signs that social media can play a supportive role in Myanmar’s peace process and overall transition to democracy.
"On the other hand, a lack of knowledge and experience with social media has left young internet users in Myanmar highly susceptible to disinformation campaigns, hate speech and harassment on these very same platforms,” he said.
“Social media provides a unique opportunity for children and youth in Myanmar to connect with people and services they would otherwise not normally have access to. We can’t let polarising and discriminatory voices on social media hijack the minds of young people.
“Democratic processes are vulnerable to fake news, and with a general election due in Myanmar in 2020, social media could easily be used to undermine the region’s newest democracy.
“With nearly half of Myanmar’s population under the age of 25, it is essential that young and first-time voters have the chance to participate in the democratic process and ensure their voices are heard.”
Co-author and research adviser Ms Melyn McKay said both girls and boys needed to be taught digital literacy; social media companies could play an important role, particularly Facebook, which was so widely used in Myanmar.
“We must work together with the private and public sectors, technology companies and civil society to find new ways to give young people the tools they need to stay safe online," she said.
“Social media can erode or reinvigorate democracy. Let’s make sure it’s the latter.”
Featured image credit: Phyo Phyo Nay Win
Declaration: The research was supported by a grant from Save The Children International. This study was conducted in consultation with the local communities, and according to child- and gender-sensitive research principles.