The Facebook election? Not quite yet

New tech is transforming Myanmar – but can it also impact on the November 8 election? While some of the country’s election candidates have made Facebook their podium, the still-low number of Myanmar people on the social media platform – estimated at barely 10 percent of the population – means politicians can only make so many “friends”.

In just a few years, the proportion of Myanmar’s population with a phone connection has risen from about 10 percent to more than 40pc. It should continue to climb strongly in the coming years as the mobile industry’s three operators battle to acquire new users by spreading infrastructure to the country’s furthest corners.

Yet campaigning on Facebook currently has a limited reach. Though many of those getting new SIM cards are using data, it’s not everyone – and then not all of those connecting to the internet use social media. Local civil society organisation Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) has estimated the Myanmar user base of Facebook, by far the most popular social network, at 6 million people.

These are mostly in urban areas, however, making the social media platform potentially useful for city-based candidates. Some are bullish about the opportunities.

“In 2010, a mere 1pc to 2pc of people had access to the internet. Now, we have 18 million people who are using mobile data,” said MIDO program manager Ma Htaike Htaike Aung. “That’s quite a big number, and I think the 18 million people also belong to the areas in the country which will have good voter turnout.”

Already, she said, “It’s very clear that people are seeing social media as a medium they can use.”

Facebook’s importance as a campaign tool depends largely on the candidate, according to Ko Chamtha Kyaw, the executive director of Pandita Development Institute. A politician running for a seat in an urban area has more use for it than one hoping to win a rural constituency.

“There are a lot of young people in Yangon … who are using Facebook, so for Nay Phone Latt it’s effective,” he said, referring to the well-known blogger and activist running in Thingangyun township. “[But if] I am the candidate for a small Kayah village, if we spend money on Facebook it’s a waste of money.”

For the major parties seeking to reach a national audience and build awareness about their activities, it’s also useful.

“Now, big parties are creating their own pages on Facebook,” said Ko Than Htike Soe, technical director for local social network DoeMyanmar. “But I don’t see ethnic parties or independent candidate pages.”

It’s not only candidates that are seeking to take advantage of new tech opportunities for the election.

Pandita launched a Facebook platform to motivate Myanmar’s youth to get out and vote, and an accompanying website.

But the organisation’s election program officer, Ko Phyo Tin Oo, said he didn’t think social media could affect the election’s outcome because of the small number of Facebook users as compared to the country’s population.

“Most people don’t use Facebook,” he said.

These doubts about reach and influence haven’t stopped some candidates from using Facebook. The social media platform has been the stage for some of the year’s best political theatre; in August, parliamentary Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann used the site to assure people he was back at his desk after a midnight ouster as leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. His page boasts frequent updates, and posts generate thousands of “likes”. Scrolling Facebook’s News Feed, users might even stumble on a sponsored post from the parliamentary Speaker.

However, his more than 182,000 fans and counting can’t measure up to online support behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose official page has been “liked” by over 1.3 million people. Along with content from the campaign trail, the politician many call “The Lady” posted a video on how to physically cast a ballot.

But the NLD is also wary about unfiltered engagement on the site – so concerned, in fact, that it has previously prohibited its candidates from speaking to the media or posting on Facebook.

“The weak point of social media is [people] can [put] abusive posts or comments on it,” said Shan Nationalites League for Democracy secretary U Sai Nyunt Lwin. “The strong points are that we can show what we have done. If we lie on Facebook, good results won’t come.”

He agreed that a social media strategy could help candidates win in urban areas. “If candidates cannot go to every house, people can see his policy and who he is via Facebook,” he added.

Heading to Facebook can open up a channel for candidates to connect with voters. But it can also expose them to abuse – something that USDP lower house candidate U Ye Aung said he fears.

“I didn’t post any of my campaign activities online and on social media because I am afraid of people insulting me on Facebook,” said the politician, who is running in Bahan township. “Facebook has good and weak points, but for me it’s more annoying to see hate speech, abusive words and attacks.”

Some election candidates have more experience on social media than others. Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) MP U Ye Tun, who is re-contesting his lower house seat of Hsipaw, said he has used it for years to reach out to the media.

“I have a lot of journalist friends, and they are using social media so I can talk to them easily. The quick response spreads around the country but it is still difficult to reach my constituency,” said U Ye Tun. While voters in his area aren’t big Facebook users, young urban ethnic Shan people use it regularly. “The people in the villages can hear my contributions from the radio, not from Facebook.”

But the platform isn’t ideal for engaging in debate, he conceded.

“For example, when we argue about federalism, I can’t explain everything on social media. That would be a very long conversation,” he continued.

Source: Myanmar Times

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