Nearly 90 percent of protesters who were interviewed in Egypt and Tunisia a year ago said that they used Facebook to organize demonstrations and spread awareness about the Arab Spring uprising.
Once again, but this time in Burma, social networking proved to be the key medium for disseminating the flow of news and in encouraging citizens to stand together against the threats of a dictatorship.
In a country where dissident Internet sites, blogs and emails are commonly hacked, Burma’s journalists and activists were relying heavily upon access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get their news out.
Digital photographs were downloaded directly from polling stations around the country or from the NLD headquarters in Rangoon and spread instantly on Facebook. International journalists who ran back to their hotel rooms or to Internet cafes to file their stories discovered that they were already an hour too late.
During Burma’s general election in November 2010—the Dark Ages when the country was ruled by junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe—all social networking sites and dissident news websites were blocked.
Now suddenly, under the new government of President Thein Sein, the once pariah state has opened up and relaxed its attitude toward popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Google Chat, all of which were previously perceived as threats.
Even local journals and media outlets, including Eleven Media Group, 7Day News Journal, Messenger News Journal, Yangon Press International, Burma VJ Media Network and Shwe Myit Makha used Facebook and similar sites to upload brief news, photos and election results.
“During the 2010 election, Facebook was not widely used and it was too difficult for us to upload even one photograph,” said May Thingyan Hein, the editor-in-chief of online news group Shwe Myit Makha.
“This time, we had more freedom to report on the by-election,” she said. “We used Facebook to launch brief news items, and followed up with full reports on our own website.”
Although exile media and foreign media such as Mizzima, DVB, The Irrawaddy and BBC are currently accessible inside Burma, the connection speed is notoriously slow, and sites frequently crash. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter operate much faster, and traffic on those sites was immensely popular during the election period.
Nyo Gyi, a prominent blogger in Burma, said that Facebook made it easier to access a plethora of news reports on polling day.
“Since the Internet connection speed is very slow here, and we cannot browse between websites, it became much more viable to ‘share’ all the news on Facebook,” he said.
He said Burmese Internet users prefer to use Facebook because it is very user-friendly and they are familiar with it. Citizen journalists spent all day in Internet cafes on April 1 uploading and sharing news and photographs on Facebook, he said.
“I don’t use Facebook that much, but I stayed on it on day to read news about the by-election,” said a Rangoon youth. “Reading news on Facebook is time-saving and more practical than browsing through every website.”
One example of its success on election day was when reports surfaced that wax had been smeared on ballot papers. Word instantly spread via social media sites.
Later that same day, Ye Htut, the director-general of the Ministry of Information, posted on his Facebook page a denial concerning all the rumors about waxed ballots.
Though there are no official figures, it is well known that the number of Facebook accounts is increasing exponentially in Burma.
According to the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunication’s official data, in July 2010 the country had over 400,000 Internet users—just 0.8 percent of the population—with the vast majority of the users hailing from the two largest cities, Rangoon and Mandalay.
“People tend to read news on Facebook rather than from a blog or from a news website,” said Nyo Gyi. “On Facebook, we can read, share everything we receive, and discuss opinions with just one click.”
Additional reporting by Saw Yan Naing.