Digital Frontlines during the Battle against COVID-19 in Myanmar

While struggling with mis/disinformation during COVID-19 pandemic period, the threat on the right to freedom of expression is on rise in Myanmar.

panic buying at the pharmaceutical shop
Teaser Image Caption
People lined up in front of a pharmaceutical shop in downtown Yangon

When, on 23rd March, 2020, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports announced on first two positive cases of COVID-19, panic buying started immediately at midnight at a 24-hour supermarket in Yangon. On the following day, people piled up at wholesale and retailed pharmaceutical shops, even though the government assured that there would be no food shortage and shut down of markets and shopping centers. The Ministry of Health and Sports urged people to check its website and Facebook pages for the updates on COVID-19 in the country.

However, fake news and misinformation including false cures, accusing and blaming have been spawned and spread more through social media since the outbreak got more serious around the world. One of the two first Myanmar cases had come back from the U.S. to Tedim Township in Chin State. Another one returned from UK, leaving some people skeptical as to how many people they may already have infected. The impending return of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers from neighboring countries for the Thingyan water festival in mid-April has led to much debate in the community – and to much fake news.

Much misinformation about COVID-19 has come in the form of voice messages among social media users, especially on Facebook. Civil society organizations have started to act on this. Htaike Htaike Aung of the Myanmar ICT Development Organisation (MIDO) explained that they informed Facebook to suppress misinformation in the form of voice messages. Facebook started to limit its forwarding feature. Furthermore, MIDO has a platform called “Real or Not” that can be reached via social media and website, designed to fact check the dis/misinformation regarding COVID-19.

Myanmar Now also provides fact checking on the pandemic, with articles about COVID-19 on their news website as a separate section news beat. According to Myanmar Now, on 24th March after the announcement by the Ministry on the first positive cases, more than 20 fake news — such as: “An infected person fell down in industrial zone in Bago”, “the death of the patient in Chin State”, “the runaway of the infected patient from Wai Bar Gi hospital”, “33 people were tested positive”, and so forth — with ten thousand and more shares were found on social media. The news agency AFP is also seeking for a fact check reporter for its digital media platform to report on disinformation in Myanmar.  

While the country is facing misinformation and pandemic issues, a threat on freedom of expression is on rise right during this COVID-19 outbreak. Recently, Government ordered to block more than 200 websites including ethnic media outlets based in Rakhine and Karen States, arguing they were spreading fake news. According to Frontier Myanmar, the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) publicized the list of online news outlets spreading disinformation, but the list did not include the ethnic media outlets which actually got blocked.

At the same time, a Myanmar journalist from Voice of Myanmar (VOM) Media house based in Mandalay has been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law for publishing an interview with the spokesperson of Arakan Army (AA), which the government had declared a terrorist group and an unlawful association on 23rd March. Digital rights group and journalists have a serious concern about the rights to freedom of expression, and especially in this kind of pandemic period, blocking the websites of ethnic media would affect the free flow of important information for the people living at the ongoing armed conflict areas.

At the same time, digital activists in Myanmar including MIDO and Phandeeyar are planning to cooperate with government on “infodemic”— the information on epidemic for the purpose of sharing key messages effectively to the public. Phandeeyar’s digital rights team initiated an interactive knowledge hub called Dr.Thuta Chatbot through social media, in order to empower people by knowledge about Covid-19.  Wai Phyo Myint from Phandeeyar went to meet with relevant government officials in Nay Pyi Taw as they are willing to collaborate with the relevant Ministry on knowledge and education campaign regarding Covid-19. She said, “at the moment the government is using GIS (Geographic Information System) on contact tracing, but what I worry is that they can’t be able to handle with GIS if the number of cases get high”.

So, technology will be needed for self-reporting.  Taiwan provides examples for civic technology to stop the pandemic through digital platforms such as: Face Mask Map to avoid the panic buying, and a platform for citizen to work together and share the information about risky locations. However, digital literacy is one of the constraints in Myanmar, and people will need to be informed through an outreach campaign on how to download and use the app.

Government is also creating a mobile app with the help of IT experts from the Myanmar Computer Federation. This app will be installed in the mobile of people in every region and state including border check point. Even though this can be useful technology, there is no further explanation regarding privacy of the individuals that concerns digital rights group. The involvement of IT experts is needed for developing apps as digital rights group alone will not be able to carry it out. Also, the support of international organizations will also play an essential role in this battle.

Read more related articles on tech and Covid-19 with global perspectives here .