Myanmar’s November elections are still a way away, but partisan warfare between the so-called “reds” and “greens” has already erupted on Facebook.
Myanmar’s Facebook sphere has in recent weeks seen a dramatic rise in activity on the part of “red partisans” of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party and “green partisans” loyal to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the military. The rise of on-line hyper-partisanship comes as Myanmar prepares for the general elections to be held on 8 November. The hyper-partisanship will dominate the campaign, and potentially impair the ability of voters without strong partisan commitments to make informed choices.
The rise of Facebook partisans originated in an NLD announcement on 31 May 2020 that the party was ready to select its candidates for the coming polls. The announcement also coincided with State Counsellor and NLD Chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s meteoric rise to celebrity status on Facebook due to her crisis Facebooking in the face of the pandemic.
The NLD’s move immediately provoked a “war” between red partisans and green partisans on Facebook, the most popular social media platform in Myanmar. Red is the colour of the background of the NLD’s flag, and green the background colour of the standard of the USDP, the NLD’s predecessor in power. This Facebook war is fought not only with words but also with pictures, videos, cartoons and memes. Weeks prior to the Union Election Commission’s 1 July announcement about the date of the November polls, a flurry of social media posts had called on people to vote for the NLD.
The war between red partisans and green partisans is not new. Partisan political communication has occurred on Facebook at least since 2012, but a widespread fixation on the elections has now intensified it immeasurably. Facebook has become a free-fire zone where electoral rules do not apply. The platform’s so-called “community standards,” perhaps effective in some cases, were not designed with elections in mind. Reflecting the brutal business of politics in the real world, partisans in cyberspace use a mix of positive and negative campaigning, singing the praises of their own party and casting aspersions on the other.
The most serious showdown so far between red partisans and their green opponents began on 19 June, when government spokesperson U Zaw Htay disclosed that President U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other senior NLD-appointed public officials had acquired sizeable plots of land in Naypyidaw. A bitter war of words, images, and memes between red and green partisans subsequently ensued, and will likely continue till November.
It is an open secret that public officials in Myanmar have enriched themselves since the 1960s by taking ownership of “VIP land” for free or at extremely low prices. U Zaw Htay’s admission led green partisans to start ridiculing NLD leaders as if they had caught them red-handed. In response, red partisans called the USDP and the military “thieves” and countered that NLD government officials had “bought” their plots. The unfortunate outcome of this kerfuffle was the lost opportunity for rational public debate on whether such land acquisitions should continue. In the past month, the voices of the few reasonable and non-partisan commentators and moderate supporters of the NLD have been drowned out in the savage partisan war.
The two parties and their supporters are not wholly to blame for the new toxic environment. Elections in the pre-social media age were already messy public events to begin with, where rules that were absurdly difficult to enforce. In the new normal framed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, public events have been banned. No end to this ban is in sight.
Facebook has become a free-fire zone where electoral rules do not apply. The platform’s so-called “community standards,” perhaps effective in some cases, were not designed with elections in mind.
With the November elections set to occur in the “new normal,” Facebook has become an even more important electioneering tool than ever. The approaching general elections in Myanmar bear the hallmarks of a “GE on Facebook,” in which voters — partisan or otherwise — are already seeing themselves drowning in wave after wave of “partisan tsunamis.”
Granted, partisanship is a common phenomenon in many, if not most, electoral democracies. But tested ways to regulate and police extreme or dangerous partisanship online are almost non-existent in such contexts.
Arguably, some measures can forestall the damage. Electoral management bodies such as the Union Election Commission can discourage political parties from promoting hyper-partisanship. Independent international and domestic electoral observers can keep tabs on negative campaigning. But defining negative campaigning in the first place and drawing the line between tolerable and prosecutable campaign tactics is a Sisyphean task.
There are other pressing problems. The intentional dissemination of false information or disinformation online and the creation of pages dedicated to fake news might be easily detected, policed and regulated. But that task becomes formidable and even impossible when hundreds of partisan Facebook users are engaged in negative campaign activity that borders on disinformation. This is a phenomenon increasingly seen among Myanmar partisans.
Will all hell break loose in the Myanmar Facebook sphere in the coming months? It is still a bit early to say, but the writing is on the wall.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw was previously Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.