A blog by the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy
Political Communication Summer Series #2
Today, the Bulletin Editorial Team is happy to kick off our summer series with policy briefs written by MPP students on topics of political communication in different settings worldwide. The articles are the result of a MPP course taught by Dr. Hasnain Bokhari in the summer semester. The course introduced fundamental concepts of political communication in highly interactive sessions. The six policy briefs will be published in couples of two, i.e. via three blogposts, so make sure to a) scroll down to not miss the second one of the day and b) tune in on Thursday and Friday of this week, as well, for parts 2 and 3 of our series.
Enjoy the break!
Florian and the Bulletin Editorial Team
1. Digital Power: The role of social media in the revolutionary response to the Myanmar coup (Author: Naw Mai)
On 1 February 2021, Myanmar´s military launched a coup against the democratically elected civilian government. Following the coup, the country experienced nationwide anti-coup resistance efforts, including street protests, civil disobedience movements (CDM), an opposition parallel government (National Unity Government, NUG), guerrilla armed groups (People's Defense Forces, PDF), and increasing attacks by ethnic armed groups (Ryan & Tran, 2022). In this mass protest movement, social media has played a crucial role. This blog will analyse the role of social media platforms in the anti-coup movements.
Social media in anti-coup movement in Myanmar
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok became the main venue for the uploading and spreading of images and videos of protests across the country (Rao & Atmakuri, 2021). In Myanmar, Facebook is the most popular social media platform, with over 20 million users out of a population of over 50 million (Social Media Users in Myanmar, 2023). Less than 72 hours after the coup, people around the country took to Facebook to articulate their anger and frustration at the military takeover (Ebbighausen, 2021). In response to this, the Myanmar military banned Facebook in February 2021, which the protestors turned around with the help of free apps on the Internet such as virtual private networks (VPN). The ban on Facebook resulted in a significant rise in other social media apps, e.g. Twitter users went from 190,000 in 2020 to 1.2 million in March 2021(Tangen Jr, 2021), becoming the most used social media platform in Myanmar.
For the protesters, social media is a platform for debate and discussion, as well as to attract international attention to the crisis and raise international support. As the intensity of protests grew, images and videos were uploaded on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar (Tangen Jr, 2021). On TikTok, both live and recorded videos of clashes between protesters and polices were posted, with the hashtag #savemyanmar having been used 1.4 billion times (Tangen Jr, 2021).
These platforms also served as sources of information provided to the protestors for their safety. For example, they can check the posts and articles to know whom to contact, what to do and whom to call if someone is arrested, and how to get VPN access and crowdfunding activity (Rao & Atmakuri, 2021).
Anti-military activists have also used social media to reach domestic and international supporters with fundraising campaigns for protesters and the parallel government, NUG. Many Facebook users have taken to social networks to advertise and sell off their belongings to raise money for the NUG, which is called Myanmar´s Pop-up Market (VOA, 2021). Many resistance groups are also relying on social media for crowdfunding for their protesting movements. One of the guerrilla armed groups has over 102,000 followers on Facebook and they regularly post videos and pictures of training and various outreach activities. The prospective donors contact the group over Facebook and send the money through online banking, although Internet restrictions make the fundraising a challenge. NUG provides financial support, but the armed groups need the followers for donations to buy weapons, food, and medicine (Frontier, 2022). Besides, for the parallel government, NUG, social media is highly important for communicating with supporters around the world and announcing their vision, mission, policies, and reports on news and events, having around 1.3 million followers on Facebook and 164500 on Twitter (Ewe, 2022).
The anti-coup protesters have conducted fast-spreading consumer boycotts and public shaming campaigns of brands and businesses associated with the military junta. The boycotts target the products of the junta´s foreign joint ventures such as Myanmar Brewery, Mytel Telecom, and other cartel businesses. Their campaign´s messages flooded social media and people posted and shared local action (Justice for Myanmar, 2021), which are now spreading through social media from big cities like Yangon to rural areas and remote villages (Oo, 2021). The activists created user-friendly mobile apps and Facebook pages where the citizens can search and filter the military junta-linked boycott businesses. These campaigns served to receive a united front to hit the military´s finances by hurting its associated business (Oo, 2021).
Moreover, social punishment is a powerful way to fight back against the family members of officers in the military. Everybody can conduct these actions, as long as they have an internet connection and a social media account. The social punishment campaign is organized by activists who list targets in the military. They create Facebook groups and viral posts which share the details of the military family or their supporters (McMichael, 2021); revealing information, including pictures of the person and details of their business connections (Tun, 2021). The anti-coup activities living abroad also target the military´s family members living outside the country to get deported and their assets frozen. In the country, the activities conduct social and economic pressure with boycotts on businesses and social shaming of families (McMichael, 2021).
Social media use against the military coup in Myanmar has had a great impact in multiple ways. Some examples of this can be seen in fundraising for anti-coup activities and boycott campaigns.
Social media use against the military coup in Myanmar has had a great impact in multiple ways. Some examples of this can be seen in fundraising for anti-coup activities and boycott campaigns.
Social media influencers who live abroad have raised substantial sums of money through their platforms. One of them, known as Pencil, links her 1.6 million Facebook followers to numerous fundraising projects, which is a well-known example (ICG, 2022). It reportedly contributed to raising more than $2 million in March and April for Project Dragonfly, which attempted to support protester organizations in purchasing anti-aircraft weapons (Mizzima, 2022b).
The anti-coup activists have created a new app as an online platform to raise funds for protesting activities (Mizzima, 2022a). The app is called “Click2Donate” which is hosted on various social media platforms to make it easy to find the link and instructions. Since it is illegal to officially advertise this kind of platform under the military coup, advertising on social media is the most effective and the only way. The app has been downloaded 500,000 times since it launched in September 2021, and it raised more than $1 million that has been delivered to hundreds of protest groups (ICG, 2022).
A series of public boycott campaigns have been conducted against military-related businesses. The boycott campaigns spreading through social media were remarkably effective. One Military-linked business, Myanmar Beer, saw its 60 percent market share collapse shortly after the coup as a result of a boycott campaign. Ethnic armed groups also joined the boycott to ban the Beer in their respective regions. Thus, Myanmar Beer was hit the hardest and the sales have fallen by 80 to 90 percent (Frontier, 2021).
Another example is the telecommunication service provider called MyTel, of which the military owns the majority shares. Activists began the boycott campaigns through social media by sharing and posting messages. After months of social media campaigns, MyTel had lost an estimated 2 million subscribers, which was worth a loss of at least US$24.9 million (Justice For Myanmar, 2021).
Social media allows for an inclusive movement, making the protests not only nationwide but letting supporters from all around the world join in the fight against the military coup. United States based Burmese academics highlight that Burmese netizens from all walks of life can unite against a common enemy. Even though the military has blocked access to certain social media such as Facebook, people in Myanmar have found ways to bypass the restrictions using many different tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) (DW, 2021). Myanmar has experienced many military coups and many different forms of resistance to the military dictatorship. However, because of the power of social media in the Digital age, the resistance forms within Myanmar and outside of the country have developed in many different ways of protest, which has never had a chance to try in previous times, which makes a significant impact on the revolutionary response to the military coup. All in all, social media has become a highly effective weapon in fighting the military junta in Myanmar.
Ryan, M., & Tran, M. V. (2022). Democratic backsliding disrupted: The role of digitalized resistance in Myanmar. Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, 20578911221125510. doi.org/10.1177/20578911221125511
2. Behind the Headlines: The influence of disinformation in the rise of xenophobia towards Venezuelan immigrants in Ecuador (Author: María José Quirola Amores)
In a world driven by instant communication, information has become a powerful force at our fingertips, capable of spreading like wildfire in a few seconds. Along with a high level of anonymity and low accountability, social media content has the potential to produce disinformation and entrenched polarization. As the fake news phenomenon has increased its popularity, disinformation now takes the form of content that could be deliberately misleading or biased in the form of manipulated narratives or facts. Easily reproduced through many platforms at our reach, it is noteworthy to analyze how disinformation contributes to the creation of hate speech and stigmatization about Venezuelan forced migration in the Ecuadorian context.
Venezuelan Situation in Ecuador
In recent years, Latin America has witnessed a significant influx of Venezuelan migrants. Unprecedented economic crises, currency devaluation, falling oil prices, and rampant unemployment have forced many to leave their homeland without a second thought. A staggering 6.1 million Venezuelans have seeked refuge and livelihoods in many countries around the world (IOM, 2023; Arena, et al., 2022), prompting an exodus, a word persistently used by the media to describe it.
Among the countries receiving the highest number of Venezuelan migrants, Ecuador is the third most prominent, following Colombia and Peru. Approximately 502,200 Venezuelan refugees and migrants have registered in the country (UNHCR, 2022), with 73% facing irregular immigration status and an estimated 42% falling within the 26-35 age range. Historically, Ecuador has been a nation of emigration more than immigration, as Ecuadorian citizens continue to seek better opportunities in countries such as the United States or Spain. However, the reception and integration of immigrants present a relatively new challenge for the country, straining its registration systems, multidimensional integration, and peaceful coexistence capabilities.
The Role of Disinformation
Mass media has played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and influencing perceptions about migration. It also serves as a conduit for disseminating both information and disinformation related to human mobility. Disinformation significantly contributes to fueling xenophobic sentiments, intensifying the sense of otherness among newcomers within a country. False narratives and misleading information about Venezuelans have been continuously spread through various channels, including social media and word-of-mouth.
The presence of an economic threat
Research suggests that when the country of origin is perceived as 'doing well' economically, the degree of xenophobia tends to be lower (Quillian, 1995). On the other hand, when migrants and refugees come from countries that Ecuadorians tend to perceive as going economically worse, more xenophobia has been detected (Ripoll & Navas, 2018, p. 17). In this sense, along with the great influx of migrant and forcibly displaced populations, it is more common to encounter content emphasizing the construction of the migrant as a “threat”. This very much allows for emotional persuasion to be embedded in social media by promoting adverse attitudes and behaviors toward migrants.
Such fake pieces of content in the form of hateful comments aim to manipulate public opinion, instill fear, and promote discriminatory attitudes. This systematically leads to consistent verbal and physical assaults that increase prejudice and discrimination in daily life encounters. On a bigger scale, this marginalization hinders their access to the job market and basic services and has a harmful mental health impact in an environment that becomes gradually hostile.
The focus on crime perception
Most biases found in social media posts rejecting the migrant and refugee population focus on the perception that they contribute to increased criminal activity in Ecuador. A social media post was titled "Work, don't steal, don't murder. Go back to your country, demand your rights" (Xenophobia Barometer, 2021). Even though there is no clear correlation between the criminality index and the presence of Venezuelans in Ecuador, they are believed to be responsible for an upsurge in crime rates, due to the presence of hate speech. According to Ecuador Verifica (2023), an Ecuadorian-citizen initiative to verify online information, Venezuelan nationals accounted for only 3% of arrests in 2020. In contrast, in 2022, 93% of the detainees were Ecuadorians.
Misconceptions fed by social media can lead to an overestimation of the involvement of Venezuelans in criminal activities. A contributing factor is that crime reports tend to highlight nationality when the offender is a foreigner, magnifying its significance over other factors. This also fosters the creation of a negative stereotype based on isolated facts. Consequently, excessive exposure to news stories focusing on crimes committed by foreigners perpetuates an inaccurate perception of the actual proportion of individuals engaging in criminal behavior within the rest of the population.
The focus on violent events: two examples
Prejudices have strongly emerged as a result of the hyper-focalization of violent events in Ecuador. This was particularly evident in 2019 when mass anti-government protests paralyzed Ecuadorian transportation systems and economic activities for several weeks. Protesters were outraged over President Lenin Moreno’s decision to cut decades-old fuel subsidies and implement tax and labor reforms (Al Jazeera, 2019). Primarily, there were accusations against Venezuelans, pointing them out for participating in the demonstrations in exchange for money, being inciters of the protests as part of a communist plan due to the regime of Nicolas Maduro, and committing violent or illegal actions in the framework of the mobilizations, among others (Xenophobia Barometer, 2022).
Another situation to further illustrate the influence of media on xenophobia is identified in what has been named the “Diana Case”. Identified as an act of gender violence, a feminicide, a Venezuelan man was the perpetrator who assassinated his pregnant partner in the public space (GK, 2021). Consequently, President Moreno decided to impose tighter entry restrictions to Venezuelans in Ecuador, including a criminal record requirement and openly declared: “Ecuador is and will be a country of peace. I will not allow any antisocial to take it away" (BBC, 2019; El Comercio, 2019). The government's shift in the regional migration policy went from a focus on guaranteeing rights to a more restrictive approach to border control and security. The crime was overshadowed by the fact that the perpetrator was Venezuelan and hence, not only ignited xenophobic sentiments but also underpowered the issue of structural gender violence.
After mass media made an echo of this event, a group of Ecuadorian residents walked through several streets intending to expel Venezuelan migrants. Several members of this mob entered some migrant residences, took their possessions, and threw them into the street to light them with fire (Mantilla, 2020). Strong accusations not only have the power to create a false idea about group identity that differs from reality but also instigate more violent acts that ended up fueling xenophobia through disinformation (Altamirano & Torres-Toukoumidis, 2021). Other regional examples are worth mentioning, such as the case of Colombia. As Barandica (2020) explains, what is usually forgotten is that behind the conditions Venezuelans face is that most of them do not start their lives in a new country voluntarily, rather that they have been forced to leave.
What lies ahead?
The impacts of disinformation can be detrimental. The potential escalation of public pressure, driven by specific media outlets and influential individuals, can urge governments to close or impose restrictions on border crossings. Consequently, migrants have decided to take irregular routes and heightened risks of extortion, violence, exploitation, smuggling, and human trafficking, or have decided to leave the country. In essence, such conditions would contribute to a rise in human rights violations among individuals on the move and exacerbate the precariousness of their living conditions.
Disinformation, characterized by its deliberate misleading or biased content, has found fertile ground in the era of mass communication, particularly through social media platforms. The influx of Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador, driven by the economic crisis in Venezuela, has created an environment prone to the spread of disinformation. Despite evidence demonstrating the lack of correlation between Venezuelans and crime rates in Ecuador, the persistence of these narratives perpetuates the belief on the contrary.
Now more than ever, efforts to combat fake facts should be accompanied by comprehensive migration policies that prioritize the protection of migrants' rights, promote integration, and address the underlying socioeconomic factors that drive migration. By addressing the root causes and challenging false narratives, societies can work towards building a more inclusive and tolerant environment for those who were forced to flee.
BBC (2019). Feminicidio en Ecuador: la advertencia del presidente Lenín Moreno a los migrantes venezolanos tras el asesinato de una mujer embarazada a manos de su expareja. bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-46942272
Quillian, L. (1995). Prejudice as a Response to Perceived Group Threat: Population Composition and Anti-Immigrant and Racial Prejudice in Europe. American Sociological Review, 60(4), 586–611. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096296
Ripoll, S. & Navas-Alemán, L. (2018) Xenofobia y Discriminación Hacia Refugiados y Migrantes Venezolanos en Ecuador y Lecciones Aprendidas para la Promoción de la Inclusión Social, IDS and UNICEF.
Sánchez, A., Candela, S. & Torres-Toukoumidis, A. (2022). Desinformación y migración venezolana. El caso Ecuador.
Naw Mai, currently a master´s student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, specializes in conflict studies and management, and socio-economics policy. He has a strong experience in humanitarian work at NGOs such as IRC and ICRC in Myanmar. He demonstrates a deep passion for peacebuilding and conflict management.
María José Quirola is a master’s student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations with minors in Sociology and Political Science. Her work experience focuses on communicational and administrative work ON refugee and migration affairs. Her interests are cross-cultural communication, migration, gender, and integration.
~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~