GENEVA (13 March 2023) – Myanmar’s military junta is orchestrating an online campaign of terror, and weaponising social media platforms to crush democratic opposition, UN experts* said today.
“Online rhetoric has spilled into real world terror, with military supporters using social media to harass and incite violence against pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders,” the experts said. “Women have been targeted and severely harmed,” they said.
According to the experts, pro-junta accounts regularly use hateful, sexualised, and discriminatory rhetoric in an attempt to discredit women activists and human rights defenders. “Gendered abuse has caused many women to cut back their online activism and retreat from public life,” they said.
The UN experts warned that messaging and social media platforms – Telegram in particular – have become a hotbed of pro-military activity. “Since the coup, pro-junta actors have taken advantage of Telegram’s lax approach to content moderation and gaps in its terms of service. They have attracted tens of thousands of followers by posting violent and misogynistic content,” the experts said.
They noted that women are often targets of so-called “doxxing”, the act of publishing private information, including names and addresses, about individuals without their consent. These attacks are frequently accompanied by calls for violence or arrest by junta forces. “Doxxed” women have also been accused of having sexual relations with Muslim men or supporting the Muslim population – a common ultranationalist, discriminatory and Islamophobic narrative in Myanmar.
“Failing to cement its grip on power by locking up political prisoners and gunning down peaceful protesters, the junta has escalated its ruthless suppression of dissent to virtual spaces,” the experts said. They explained that the junta was terrified of women’s power to mobilise resistance to military rule in online spaces.
“Every day, women are being threatened online with sexualised violence because they are standing up for human rights, opposing the military’s attempted rule, and fighting for a return to a democratic path. ‘Doxxing’ and other forms of online harassment add to the multiple threats that women activists human rights defenders and independent associations are already facing in Myanmar,” they said.
After being made aware of these offenses, and shortly before the publication of critical reports detailing abuse on its platform, Telegram blocked at least 13 pro-military accounts, although at least one of the worst offending channels is back online.
While welcoming Telegram’s recent actions, the experts said more needed to be done. “Unless Telegram fundamentally changes its approach to content moderation in Myanmar, it is likely that pro-military actors will simply open new accounts and continue their campaign of harassment,” they said.
The experts urged Telegram and other social media platforms to meet their responsibilities to identify, prevent, and mitigate human rights abuses. “Tech companies must ensure that their services do not contribute to human rights abuses, including gender-based violence and discrimination, arbitrary arrest, the right to privacy, and the suppression of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, both online and offline, and association,” they said.
“Telegram and other social media companies must allocate the necessary resources to protect the human rights of their users,” the experts said, referring to the targeting of women and the need to monitor content in Burmese and ethnic languages in close coordination with local organisations and actors.
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*The experts: Thomas Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar; Dr. Ana Brian Nougrères, Special Rapporteur on the right to Privacy; Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences; Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radačić (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Meskerem Geset Techane and Melissa Upreti, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Ms. Pichamon Yeophantong (Chairperson), Mr. Damilola Olawuyi (Vice-Chairperson), Ms. Fernanda Hopenhaym, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, and Mr. Robert McCorquodale of the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association