Myanmar women target of online abuse by pro-military social media

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Women who have expressed views on social media opposing military rule in Myanmar are being subjected to abuse, including calls for their arrest and threats of violence, rape and death by pro-military online users, a study has found.

Myanmar Witness, an organisation that led the study, said social media platforms such as Telegram and Facebook were not doing enough to tackle online abuse or were not responding quickly enough to requests to remove abusive users and content.

Politically motivated abuse against women from and in Myanmar increased at least fivefold in the aftermath of the military’s seizure of power in February 2021, according to the study, and the prevalence of abusive posts targeting women was 500 times higher on Telegram compared with other international social media companies.

“The overwhelming majority of abusive posts were authored by male-presenting profiles supportive of Myanmar’s military coup and targeted women who opposed the coup,” Myanmar Witness said in the report released on Wednesday.

“Online abuse and doxxing attacks are having a silencing effect and causing women to retreat from public life,” the report said.

“Survivors report attacks on their views, person and dignity, and threats of rape, death and violence with severe emotional and psychological impacts,” it said.

“Doxxing”  – the release of people’s private details online without their consent, such as their home address, contact details and personal photos – was the main form of abuse found in the study, which involved 1.6 million Telegram posts as well as case studies and interviews with those targeted by politically motivated abuse online.

The women subjected to doxing appeared to have been singled out for having commented positively on groups in Myanmar that oppose military rule, such as the shadow National Unity Government, which includes former democratically elected legislators, and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which has taken up arms to fight military rule.

According to the study, “28% of all doxxing posts analysed in the qualitative study include an explicit call for the targeted women to be punished offline.”

“Almost all of these called on Myanmar military authorities to arrest the targeted woman and/or seize her property,” it said.

Coordinated behaviour was observed by those behind the campaigns of abuse “through the frequent sharing and mutual amplification of doxxing posts” as well as alerting authorities and celebrating the arrests of the women targeted, according to the study.

Women were also subjected to sexualised disinformation campaigns where pro-military social media users depicted their targets as “morally corrupt”, “racially impure”, “promiscuous” and “sexual prey for PDF and ethnic armed organisation (EAO) leaders and foreigners”.

“Dehumanising sexualised language and imagery mirrors tactics known to have been used by the Myanmar military to dehumanise the Rohingya population,” the report said.

What the report uncovered was likely the “tip of the iceberg”, the organisation said, noting that the scale and severity of abuse targeting women online was likely much larger as the study was based only on publicly available social media posts. Posts shared in closed social media groups could not be assessed, and Facebook’s data access policy does not allow for large-scale quantitative analysis.

“Without full access to platform data it is impossible to accurately assess the true scale or prevalence of abuse,” the study said. “This is particularly relevant for Myanmar’s most widely used social media platform, Facebook.”

The report’s authors said social media platforms need to be more accountable, should work with women’s rights organisations in Myanmar and devote more resources to monitoring the local language content they host.

Platforms should also make data accessible to those affected by online abuse so they can track such content and the “effectiveness of countermeasures” taken by social media firms, the authors wrote. Social media companies also need to improve their response times when abuse and threats are reported and must quickly remove abusive accounts when threatening activity is flagged, the Myanmar Witness said.

In an update added to the report, the organisation said Telegram and Meta appeared to have removed “the majority of abusive posts and channels identified during this investigation” as of Wednesday.

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