top of page
  • Myanmar Internet Project

Wirathu’s failed attempt to interfere in the 2020 Myanmar Elections

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

On November 1, 2020,  after nearly 18 months on the run, ultra nationalist monk Wirathu tried, and failed, to leverage social media to interfere in the Myanmar elections. He had been a fugitive since being charged with sedition in May 2019. As he turned himself in to the police, just 6 days before the polls, Wirathu sought to influence the electoral campaign in an apparent attempt to put his weight behind the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Speaking to a crowd of smartphone carrying supporters, as he held a USDP branded umbrella, Wirathu called on his supporters to vote out the NLD and vote for “parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion.”  His return was a carefully orchestrated PR stunt intended to bring forth the Race and Religion narrative in the final week of the electoral campaign. Efforts to amplify his message on social media, however, were quickly curtailed. Facebook. which had designated Wirathy as a Dangerous Individual in 2018, reacted quickly, removing and preventing the subsequent upload of several  videos of his speech.  As Wirathu’s supporters turned to YouTube for backup, Facebook also blocked a number of YouTube video links. Ultimately,  Wirathu lost control of the narrative and was effectively prevented from using social media as a megaphone to amplify his views.


ONLINE CAMPAIGN 

Wirathu’s return to the public eye came with a well orchestrated social media campaign.




Breaking the News

The news of Wirathu’s imminent return to the public scene was first broken on Facebook in the early afternoon of  2 November. The first recorded public post came at 1:13pm from the account of  Zaw Win.



Zaw Win, aka “The king of Okkalapa”, who also uses the account Zaw Win, is a well-known Ma Ba Tha supporter with ties to the Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP), including its chairman, secretary general and spokesperson.



 As per The Irrawaddy’s reporting, he  was also part of the group of nationalists which received support from Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MP U Maung Myint.



In his original post, Zaw Win announced that he had heard that Wirathu would turn himself in to the police after a planned visit to  the Buddhist sangha. 


Zaw Win’s post was reshared by various Ma Ba Tha supporters and spread across various Facebook groups. 


Zaw Win’s words were also copied, verbatim, by various Facebook pages, including  အတုမရှိVoice - 2  and ဂျင်းတို့၏ မာယာ. The former is thought to be the online branch of အတုမရှိ, a Ma Ba Tha affiliated journal which the Ministry of information banned from publication in 2017. 



These various posts helped convene a welcoming committee, that was waiting for Wirathu as he arrived at the police station.


Amplifying Wirathu’s speech 

As Wirathu arrived at the police station, he was met by a few dozen supporters equipped with smartphones, who quickly uploaded photos and videos of his arrival and speech on social media. 


The first recorded mention of Wirathu’s arrival came at 3:11pm MMT from pro-military influencer Thein Kyaw, who referred his account audience of >225k followers to the People Media Facebook page.



People Media - a partisan digital media, and Myanmar Hard Talk - a political outlet reported on by Frontier and banned by Facebook and YouTube  for repeated hate speech violations, were also on site. They used their online channels to broadcast Wirathu’s arrival and speech live on Facebook and YouTube, starting at 3:18pm. 


Starting at 3:23pm, the clickbait website fastmyanmar[.]com also started publishing a series of articles amplifying the news of Wirathu’s return and his message. Some of the articles included embedded videos of Wirathu’s speech, guaranteeing the speech yet another distribution platform.



The tone of the coverage, as well as the multiplicity of articles and speed of publishing suggests that fastmyanmar[.]com may have been involved with Wirathu’s amplification strategy.  


Fastmyanmar’s clickbait articles were distributed on Facebook by a cluster of Facebook pages, which, at the time of the event, shared content exclusively from fastmyanmar[.]com and burmesedailyonline[.]org and posted in a quick, coordinated succession. 



Example of coordinated page posting of fastmyanmar [.]com articles covering  Wirathu’s  return. 


The Facebook page Burmese Daily Online had the most significant audience, with over 5.3m followers. The page, which Frontier reported on in an October 2020 piece, was previously known as the  Facebook-based media “Brainwave”, which stopped publishing in late 2017. It is possible that the page was purchased for its audience before being rebranded.




Prior to sharing the websites fastmyanmar[.]com and burmeseonlinedaily[.]org, the Facebook pages within the cluster had a history of association with other websites, including chitsakar[.]com, wemediamyanmar[.]com, hdmyanmar[.]com, zenmyanmar[.]com, timemyanmar[.]com, neomyanmar[.]com, thinkmyanmar[.]com, dohmyanar[.]club and everytimestory[.]com. 


Websites such as chitsakar[.]com and everytimestory[.]com, have been linked to the spam networks, which Facebook took down in September 2020 and which Graphika documented. Several of these websites have also been singled out for disseminating disinformation by fact checking projects as well as the Myanmar Press Council. According to Ooni, a number of these websites were also among the websites which the Government has requested network operators to block under its “fake news” directive.  


In addition to being amplified by Facebook pages, the fastmyanmar[.]com articles were also pushed into Facebook groups in a coordinated manner, with postings made by the same accounts in quick succession across the same set of groups.


Example of coordinated group posting of fastmyanmar[.]com articles covering  Wirathu’s  return.


Many of the groups showed evidence of sharing the same admins, branding elements, and a history of repeated sharing of articles from the website fastmyanmar[.]com. 





The following CrowdTangle leaderboard, which shows groups with repeated posting of articles from fastmyanmar[.]com in the week preceding the incident, highlights two sets of groups with identical branding.  


According to CrowdTangle, articles from fastmyanmar[.]com were shared between 129 and 246 times in the following groups over that week - corresponding to an average of 18-35 posts in each group every day. 

PLATFORM MODERATION 

Facebook and YouTube responded very differently to the situation. While Facebook took prompt action to prevent Wirathu from using its platform as a megaphone to influence the elections, YouTube failed to take any action. 


Facebook 

Facebook was at the center of the PR strategy surrounding Wirathu’s return. As the main social media platform in Myanmar, with over 27.7m active accounts at the time,  Facebook is where Wirathu and his supporters first turned to to advertise his return and amplify his speech.


Having designated Wirathu as a Dangerous Individual in January 2018, Facebook was able to leverage the designation to take quick action. Under its Dangerous Individual and Organization policy, Facebook bans Wirathu from having a presence on the platform as well as prohibits content that expresses support or praise of his person.


By 3:50pm, just over 40 minutes after Wirathu’s arrival at the police station,  Facebook had removed the live broadcast of Wirathu’s arrival from the People Media page. In the minutes and hours following, it also took down several other videos of Wirathu’s speech as well as posts praising Wirathu’s return and his message.  


Facebook further banked violating videos to prevent their reupload. This moderation of native videos prompted users, including People Media, to turn to YouTube as an alternative source of hosting. Facebook eventually blocked YouTube links to Wirathu’s speech videos.


People Media turns to YouTube to host the video of Wirathu’s speech which Facebook had banned


Facebook also banned several of the pages associated with  fastmyanmar[.]com in the hours and days following the incident. This included the page Burmese Daily Online. Interestingly, however, Facebook did not take comprehensive action on all of the pages linked to the page cluster. It also did not take action on any of the groups involved with the distribution of fastmyanmar[.]com. 


Youtube 

Though YouTube is not as widely used as Facebook in Myanmar, the video platform saw significant growth in the country in 2020, as 4G became more widely available and interest in video content grew. 

Hundreds of Myanmar focused channels appear to have been created in 2020, driven mostly by clickbait actors, who appear to see in YouTube a new source of monetization.  


As mentioned above, YouTube has also become increasingly popular as an alternative hosting platform to evade Facebook enforcement.  အတုမရှိVoice, the Ma Ba Tha affiliated publication behind  အတုမရှိVoice - 2 , for example, joined YouTube on 2 November 2020, posting Wirathu’s speech as its first video. 



Unlike Facebook, YouTube has not designated Wirathu or Ma Ba Tha under its Violent Criminal Organization Policy.


In addition to hosting years-worth of Wirathu speeches, YouTube is also host to numerous channels claiming to represent Wirathu.



It is unclear whether the various videos of Wirathu’s speech, which were uploaded on and after 2 November, were reviewed for content level violations, given the absence of transparency around YouTube’s ability to moderate Burmese language content.


Videos of Wirathu’s speech remain widely available on the platform, however, suggesting that if they were reviewed, YouTube did not consider them to be violating its Community Guidelines.   

The only notable exception is the live video of Wirathu’s speech broadcasted by Myanmar Hard Talk, which went down as its host channel, Myanmar Hard Talk, was banned for violating YouTube broader community guidelines in the days following the elections. 


IMPACT 

In spite of YouTube’s inaction, which undermined overall moderation efforts, Facebook’s prompt response and decision to block access to copies of Wirathu’s speech hosted on Youtube were effective at mitigating Wirathu’s ability to influence the elections. 


Though Wirathu did grab headlines by surrendering himself to the police on 2 November, his ability to leverage social media to air his views and influence the elections was greatly curtailed and the narrative surrounding his arrest was mostly driven by mainstream media. 


Ultimately, Wirathu failed to achieve his goal. As Myannmar people went to the polls, USDP gained less seats than it had in 2015; none of the ultra nationalist candidates got elected; and the two Muslim candidates who ran under the NLD banner secured their parliamentary  seats.




7 views
bottom of page