Beware of Facebook, abuse of Section 66(d): digital forum

Myanmar needs to address the spread of fake news on social media by empowering local journalists, providing freer access to information, and pushing for more responsible and conscientious use of the internet, said participants at the third Myanmar Digital Rights Forum in Yangon last month.

“Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we make huge sacrifices to disseminate truth,” said Ko Swe Win, investigative journalist and editor of Myanmar Now, in his opening remarks at the forum, which was held in the wake of the recent spread of misinformation on Facebook about the violence in Rakhine State.

Last year, United Nations investigators sharply criticised the social networking giant for letting its platform be used to incite violence and hatred against Muslim refugees in Rakhine.

In response, Facebook banned the accounts and pages of senior Tatmadaw (military) figures to “prevent the spread of hate and misinformation” on its platforms.

Still, critics at the forum warned that the steps taken are insufficient to mitigate the spread of misinformation on social media. More importantly, social media users must be aware of how fake news is created and counter it by pushing for better privacy protection. Also, they should seek information from reliable media sources.

So how is fake news created? “Fake news can be more likely to be believed than the real news because it is generally created to fit in with the prejudices of the people that they are trying to get to read it. So people are naturally predisposed to believe these stories. If, for example, they have anger about a particular group of immigrants, then, a piece of fake news making those immigrants out to be bad will be more likely to be believed,” Paul Bernal, senior lecturer at the law faculty of the University of East Anglia said via a video conference call during the forum.

“Fake news can also be created to be more emotionally charged, and hence, more likely to be shared and believed. When you create a story, you can fill in all the plot holes. You can make it all fit together very nicely. That makes it even more likely to be believed.”

He added that it is common for social media actors to programme algorithms that analyse user data to identify the things people are most likely to believe, such as their prejudices, which then allows them to invent fake news that fits perfectly with those prejudices.

“You can then use [social media’s] ability to target. …you can make sure that it gets to the right people. What’s more, you can create it in a way that is more likely to be shared,” Bernal said.

He added that there is evidence that content that is threatening and emotionally charged is more likely to be shared. “Technology lets you work out where to place your news so that people will share it for you. You just need to create it, stick it somewhere, and it will then automatically spread,” Bernal said.

Use Facebook less

What then can be done to curb the spread of fake news? Bernal said there are two ways. The first is to make sure that the real, reliable news exists. “The bedrock for dealing with fake news is to have real news that can actually counter it. For that, proper journalists have to deal with this, and to try to avoid falling into the trap of being creators of fake news,” he said.

The second way is to promote privacy. “If we protected privacy better and stopped user data from being gathered in the first place, it would be much harder to create fake news. If we didn’t allow them to micro-target in the way that they do, it would be much easier to stop the spread of fake news,” he added.

Online privacy worsens

More than 200 senior government officials, MPs, civil society organisations, journalists and business people took part in discussions at the forum, which was organised by Freedom of Expression Myanmar, the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Myanmar ICT Development Organisation, and Phandeeyar.

According to a survey of participants, 66 percent suggested a policy to keep user information safe on the internet, as the safety of private information had worsened in the previous year.

Bernal said Myanmar should try to reduce its dependency on social media for information and get news from reliable sources instead.

Despite the need for well-trained journalists and reliable news outlets, Ko Swe Win highlighted the judicial harassment of journalists using Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. The law states that “anyone found guilty of extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person by using any telecommunications network shall be punished with a maximum three years in prison, a fine or both.”

Ko Swe Win himself was once a victim of that law. He shared an article that criticised the ultranationalist monk, U Wirathu, on his Facebook page, which resulted in him being charged under Article 66(d) by a supporter of the monk.

He was not alone. Last year, 12 journalists were sued under the law for defaming the state, or prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

Among them were journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Reuters, who were arrested and convicted under the act for possessing secret government documents related to Rakhine and the security forces. They had been investigating allegations of atrocities committed by security forces in Rakhine.

Participants in this year’s forum called for the nullification of all sections of the defamation law that are enacted as criminal law, including Article 66(d).

In his keynote address, Permanent Secretary of the Transport and Communications Ministry U Soe Thein said that the government is working to build the proper policy and regulatory framework to build e-government and promote the digital economy.

“In doing so, we will make sure that we will include the voices of the people through public consultations at each step. At the same time, we have to protect free speech and users online,” he said.

Forum participants attended open sessions on online information on legislative and parliamentary processes, social media and the Mexican election, legal restrictions on digital content in Myanmar law, women’s rights online, the Myanmar Press Council and digital media, ethnic harmony, universal design and ICT for people with disabilities, human rights education, hate speech and religious intolerance, and public participation and digital activism.

Training was also provided for civil society members on issues such as digital safety and digital hygiene.


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