The internet landscape: Facebook first

A connectivity involution

During its military years, Myanmar was largely disconnected from the outside world. Public information was heavily controlled and digital access severely constrained by poor infrastructure and high prices. In 2013, the country started liberalising its telecommunications sector, resulting in the introduction of two foreign telecommunication operators (Telenor and Ooredoo) in 2014. The new operators immediately drove prices down—from the equivalent of200 US dollars for a SIM card in early 2014 (more than the average household monthly expenditure) to approximately SI.50 USD, significantly increasing affordability.

As prices dropped and infrastructure projects multiplied, millions of people across the country gained access to smartphones and mobile data. Nowhere has the connectivity revolution been so drastic. Myanmar, a country of 53 million, went from having an internet penetration of 0.23% in 2011 to 39% in 2019 with the number of active SIM cards surpassing people by 2017.

Facebook as the de facto internet

Facebook grew in popularity as more and more people accessed mobile data and it came to form the centre of Myanmar internet users’ experience, becoming a near synonym for the internet.

Even before connectivity became widely affordable, in 2014, Facebook had hundreds of thousands of existing users, many of whom were accessing the platform through devices belonging to friends or family members. Gaining their own uninterrupted access to Facebook was a key driver behind the rush for smartphone ownership. Smartphones came pre-installed with the Facebook app, with phone shop clerks offering to set up multiple accounts and passwords for users for a small fee.

Myanmar people were hungry for entertainment and information and quickly became avid Facebook users. Media and entertainment companies responded by investing heavily in digital content production. Services, which would normally be found on websites or apps, also started leveraging Facebook, turning the platform into a one stop shop for finding hotels, restaurants, booking bus tickets, engaging in online shopping and even booking doctor appointments. As most services and most content in the various Myanmar languages (Wikipedia n.d.) resided on Facebook, the broader web did not gain much traction—a phenomenon further explained by the fact that most Myanmar users had little or no experience with web browsers.

Facebook’s growing dominance of Myanmar’s information ecosystem was further supported by the offering of Free Basics (Trautwein 2016), the free version of Facebook, from 2016 to 2017, and the integration of Facebook and Messenger, which quickly became a favourite for instant communication.

So important is Facebook to the Myanmar information ecosystem that the news of the resignation of President Htin Kyaw, in March 2018, was first broken on the Myanmar President Office Facebook page and his successor’s election organised as a Facebook event by the parliament.

Digital novices

Myanmar users did not grow accustomed to technology as it developed. From a controlled information environment, they went straight into information overload, with little or no time to develop the critical digital and media literacy skills needed to serve as a foundation for internet safety. The virtual and seemingly anonymous nature of the web further provided users with a false sense of safety and freedom, which led many to see their online identity as detached from their offline identity. This altered their sense of responsibility and self-restraint, normalised the practice of “friending” strangers, and created a sense of detachment from one’s personal account. This in turn normalised the notion that one could have more than one account (two accounts are considered normal), while also reducing the importance and relevance of privacy. It is not uncommon to see Myanmar people set up new accounts whenever they get logged out or share passwords or even accounts with others—a practice particularly favoured by young couples, who see sharing accounts or account details as a display of trust and love. Such practices have made Myanmar users particularly vulnerable to scams and harassment, while also creating a favourable climate in which irresponsible speech and misinformation prosper.

 
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