Women who have expressed views opposing military rule in Myanmar on social media have been subjected to abuse, including calls for their arrest and threats of violence, rape and death by pro-military online users, a study has found.
Myanmar Witness, the organization that led the study, said social media platforms such as Telegram and Facebook were not doing enough to combat online abuse or responding quickly enough to requests to remove abusive users and content.
Politically motivated abuse of women from and in Myanmar increased at least fivefold after the military took power in February 2021, according to the study, and the prevalence of abusive posts targeting women was 500 times higher on Telegram compared to the media company’s other international social networks.
“The vast majority of offensive posts were written by male profiles who supported the military coup in Myanmar and targeted women who opposed the coup,” Myanmar Witness said in a report published on Wednesday.
“Online bullying and doxxing attacks have a silencing effect and cause women to withdraw from public life,” the report said.
“Survivors report attacks on their attitudes, personality and dignity, as well as threats of rape, death and violence with severe emotional and psychological effects,” it said.
“Doxxing” – posting people’s private information online without their consent, such as home addresses, contact details and personal photos – was the main form of abuse found in the study, which included 1.6 million posts on Telegram, as well as case studies and interviews with those who were the target of politically motivated abuse on the Internet.
Women subjected to doxing appear to have been singled out because of positive comments from groups in Myanmar opposed to military rule, such as the Shadow Government of National Unity, which includes former democratically elected lawmakers, and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which have taken up arms to is fighting against the military government.
According to the study, “28% of all doxxing posts analyzed in the qualitative study included an explicit call to punish the targeted women offline.”
“Almost all of them called on the Myanmar military authorities to arrest the targeted woman and/or seize her property,” it said.
Coordinated behavior by those behind abuse campaigns was observed “frequently sharing and mutually reinforcing doxxing posts,” as well as alerting authorities and celebrating the arrest of targeted women, according to the study.
Women were also exposed to sexualized disinformation campaigns in which pro-military social media users portrayed their targets as “morally corrupt”, “racially impure”, “promiscuous” and “sexual prey of PDF leaders and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and foreigners”. .
“The dehumanizing sexualized language and imagery reflects tactics known to have been used by the Myanmar military to dehumanize the Rohingya population,” the report said.
What the report found was likely “the tip of the iceberg,” the organization said, noting that the scope and severity of abuse targeting women online was likely much higher because the study was based only on publicly available social media posts. Posts shared in closed social media groups could not be evaluated, and Facebook’s data access policy does not allow large-scale quantitative analysis.
“Without full access to the platform’s data, it is impossible to accurately assess the true scale or prevalence of abuse,” the study said. “This is particularly relevant to Myanmar’s most used social media platform, Facebook.”
The authors of the report say that social media platforms need to be more accountable, should cooperate with women’s rights organizations in Myanmar and devote more resources to monitoring the local language content they host.
The platforms should also provide access to data for those affected by online abuse so they can monitor such content and the “effectiveness of countermeasures” taken by social media companies, the authors wrote. Social media companies also need to improve their response times when abuse and threats are reported and must quickly remove malicious accounts when threatening activity is flagged, Myanmar Witness said.
In an update to the report, the organization said Telegram and Meta had removed “the majority of offensive posts and channels identified during this investigation” as of Wednesday.