Myanmar social media boom alters landscape of local politics

Social media went into overdrive for the last few years in Myanmar with its government leaders using Facebook to disseminate information and make announcements.

YANGON: Government leaders have often used Facebook to reach out and interact with their citizens.

US President Barack Obama has captured the attention of 46 million followers while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 31 million followers.

In Myanmar, the government has also used social media as their first platform of information dissemination, in releasing statistics and even exclusive videos on the President’s Facebook page.

It all began with Information Minister and presidential spokesman Ye Htut, known in the country as the Facebook Minister. “It has really helped … the administration because traditional media have limited penetration,” he said.

“Another thing is because of our very centralised political system, people lost trust in the traditional media. This is the only way we can interact with the general public or we can feel what the people are thinking about every issue.”

Just three years ago, the country’s mobile phone penetration rate was only seven per cent. Last year, that figure increased more than four-fold to 33 per cent. The government estimates that 75 per cent of the population will have access to mobile phones in 2016.

“Myanmar has been living in isolation for years and then suddenly, at the end of isolation, they were given one of the most important weapons – smartphones that everyone can use,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies.

“I think the leader needs direct contact, because if you rely on media as the messenger, this leader fears that (the message) could be distorted and it could be delayed.”

For a country where citizens are hungry for information, the immediacy of information being shared on social media can be useful. Myanmar citizens are also more confident that the information is uncensored.

“You can issue a press release, you can take a picture of the announcement and then it will come out and people can immediately react and share it. In a way that’s good because people are more informed by the right people,” said Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

“The other problem is that sometimes there’s no way of checking the information. Someone can put up a fake account and mislead people.”

The leader of the incoming administration, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been using Facebook sparingly. Her National League for Democracy has not been as active on social media as the President’s office and spokesman, but some media practitioners believe that may not be a bad thing.

“It’s the fastest way to communicate, but there may be some sort of confusion, misunderstanding, misquotes, fake accounts,” said Thiha Saw, Myanmar News Media Council secretary. “The new government … should start working on media literacy. If people have much more awareness in terms of media literacy, there will be much more beneficial use.”

As the use of social media becomes more prevalent, experts say Myanmar citizens need to be more discerning and critical when interpreting information on Facebook. Local journalists can also play a greater role by improving their quality of writing and offering more in-depth analysis to help citizens better comprehend government policies.

Source: CNA

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