It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.
Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.
That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.
This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.
I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.
The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.
East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.
Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:
- The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.
The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.
- The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.
This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.
- Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.
- Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)
- Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.
- People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.
As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.
- People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.
All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.
Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.
We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.
We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.
It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?
I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.
The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.
Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.
Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.
This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.
I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.
I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.
Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:
- Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.
Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.
This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.
- The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.
We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.
- Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques
I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.
We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.
- It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.
Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.
In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.
It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.
- Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech
I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.
Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.
Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.
- You can’t legislate truthful speech.
It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.
Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.
The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.
I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.
The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.
The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.
Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.