YANGON -- With physical election campaigns banned to stop the spread of coronavirus, candidates in Myanmar are being targeted with hate speech and misinformation on social media such as Facebook ahead of the national poll on Nov. 8.
The Union Election Commission banned in-person campaigns and rallies, which began on Sept. 8, in areas where the COVID-19 infection rates are high. Myanmar reported a new daily high of 1,400 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, making the toll top 21,400.
In the last election in 2015, election campaign rallies took place across the country but this year's battlefield is being fought mostly on Facebook from where political parties and politicians are trying to reach their supporters and constituencies.
But experts warn that the election could be swayed by misinformation and hate speech.
Indeed, some voters say they have to be careful in what they expose themselves to. Hsu Hnin Eain, an 18-year old student and first-time voter said: "Since there are no election campaigns in our area, I am mostly checking the information and the activities of the candidates on Facebook."
But she added, "I have to be careful with misinformation too, that's why I am mainly checking the blue-ticked news media pages," referring to verified media pages on Facebook.
In particular, posts aimed at discrediting religious and sexual minorities are rife on social media. "Some comments and reactions on Facebook said our party is trying to make this country an 'LGBT nation' because I am running for election," Myo Min Tun, a gay candidate representing the People's Pioneer Party in Mandalay, told by phone.
"I just don't want to care about those reactions from social media as I am trying to show them what I can do in politics as an LBGT candidate," he added.
Facebook came under fire after it admitted in 2018 that it failed to do enough to prevent its platform from being used to "foment division and incite offline violence" over the Rohingya crisis. Fake news about the minority Muslim group attacking Buddhists were posted on Facebook.
To combat hate speech ahead of the November election, Facebook said in August that it would remove information intended to "lead to voter suppression or damage the integrity of the electoral process" by working with three fact-checking partners in Myanmar.
"Most of the hate speech toward political parties on Facebook were created based on religion and belief. They are attacking parties and candidates especially during the election campaign," Than Zaw Htun, who works for fact-checking organization BOOM Myanmar told Nikkei Asia. "Two National League of Democracy candidates were targeted as they are not Buddhists," he said.
But one person familiar to the matter said the fact-check organizations are outnumbered by the number of social posts on Facebook. The person said: "it would be good to have more team members to make better coverage especially this time."
On Thursday, Facebook said in a statement that it removed 50 Facebook accounts and six Instagram accounts from Myanmar that violated its policy. The company mentioned that although the people behind the accounts attempted to conceal their identities, its investigation found links to members of the Myanmar military.
Win Mya Mya, a Muslim candidate from NLD in Mandalay, shrugged off such smear campaigns. "As many people know me very well in the area, online hate speech is just nothing compared with people who wrote good things about me," she told Nikkei.
Win Mya Mya was a political prisoner during the military regime and now serves as a vice chairman of the NLD branch in the Mandalay region. Her party banned her from running in 2015 due to widespread discrimination against Muslims by nationalists groups.
Analysts said that if such misinformation and hate speech continues online, Myanmar could face a restive population even after the ballots are cast in November.
Ye Wai Phyo Aung, founder of Athan, a human rights organization, told Nikkei that free speech should be respected but not if it is discriminatory or untrue. "We've seen dangerous speeches against minority candidates, disabled people and LGBT groups on social media," Ye Wai Phyo Aung said.
The online election campaign is buttressed by increasing smartphones in the country. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of active mobile connections in Myanmar was 77.8 per 100 inhabitants in 2015, the year the previous election took place. The figure increased to 113.8 in 2018. Facebook is a major source of news and information for many voters.
Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), a non-governmental organization, told Nikkei that social media users in 2020 doubled from 2015. In 2015, MIDO was coming across around 100 cases of fake news and hate speech on social media per month. This year, the number has risen to around 400.
De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has 800,000 followers on her Facebook page as the chair of NLD. As a political party, NLD has the biggest following online. The NLD Facebook page has around 2.9 million followers, while the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party has just 400,000 and People's Pioneer Party has 300,000.