Friday, August 18, 2017

The two faces of social media

It is a typical afternoon in one of Yangon’s downtown restaurants – tables are packed with rubbing shoulders and nudging elbows, as waves of music lazily bounce around in the background.

Friends “exchanging” in a teashop.  Zarni Phyo/ ႊThe Myanmar TimesFriends “exchanging” in a teashop.  Zarni Phyo/ ႊThe Myanmar Times

But oddly, not a single voice is heard; no peeps, comments or even faint mutters.

Every customer has their eyes locked on their phones, digitally “exchanging”. The only audible discussions come from waiters talking with each other as they pass on customers’ orders from the floor to the kitchen.

Social media definitely helps to connect people and Facebook has made it easier to find old friends and make new ones. But what about the actual people around you? Don’t they matter too?

Myanmar is undergoing an insuppressible digital revolution. Before 2014, a SIM card cost between K3-K4 million but competition has since brought down the price to K1500.

Today, nearly everyone has a smart phone with an access to endless sources of knowledge at their fingers tips. The internet is no longer an exclusive product for the few but an everyday tool.

Along with Myanmar’s democratisation process, social media has become an agora for debate.

Millions of users are taking to Facebook to discuss, proclaim and argue over the direction the country is taking. From politics to education, health to economics, everything is a matter for controversy.

And sometimes late at night, debaters hang onto their phones just to have the last word. Some teenagers have become real night owls, warn doctors.

Although not fully diagnosed, the excessive use of social media has health consequences. Depression ranks number one on the list of these syndromes, together with sleep deprivation.

“It is not unusual to see compulsive users of social media neglecting their work and turn to therapists,” says Dr San Lin, a psychiatrist at San PyaHospital in Yangon.

The younger generation especially is increasingly present on social media, as most of them see it as a way to express their joy and achievements. Bad stories, sad stories, love stories – everything is up for sharing.

But spreading one’s feelings can turn competitive as users frenetically document their days.

Doctors have pointed out that being gratified by a “like” on Facebook stimulates our brain’s reward system and potentially turns into an addiction.

But parents worry not. “If consumed with moderation, social media cannot do great harms,” says Dr San Lin. “Social media are even beneficial in many ways. Doctors like me, for example, use online platforms to provide advice to the public,” he adds.

Social media definitely cuts down on time to find people and find places of interest.

It also shook up the gender boundaries as women feel freer to engage in discussion otherwise reserved for the male-dominated teashops.

But Myanmar is also discovering the darker side of social media.


At Facebook value

Ma Shwe Yi is in her 20’s and comes from Magwe Region.

In 2016, she decided to move to Yangon; thankfully, she had friends living in Myanmar’s bigger city. Or rather, she had “Facebook friends”.

She had met a couple online three years ago and had been engaging in chats on a weekly basis. When she said she was considering moving, they offered to help.

Emboldened by her new acquaintances’ generosity, she sold her village’s farmland and took up a job in the country’s financial capital.

Soon after, she transferred most of her wealth to her friends – after all, she thought, settling in would incur costs, who best to help her than the local friends?

The reality turned out to be very different from the virtual world.

“When I arrived, the house was totally different from the one they had posted on Facebook. Living conditions were direr than in my village,” she says. “Their faces were all but friendly and I feared for my life. When I realised they were not the people they pretended to be, I ran away.”

Ma Shwe Yi lost most of her money but found solace in contacting a woman she had met on the bus from Magwe to Yangon, an actual person whom she had physically met and who helped her through her journey.

Sadly, Ma Shwe Yi’s story is not unique. There are several accounts of young girls getting in trouble after being deceived by online lovers.

Myanmar has access to Google, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn. But in the golden land, Facebook is king.

According to GSMA intelligence, a body representing mobile operators worldwide, there are roughly 25 million internet users in Myanmar, for a total population of around 54 million.

In a June survey by the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MiDO), a non-governamental organisation, about 14 million people, ages 18-64, use Facebook every month.

Unquestionably, social media shapes the world we live in.

For instance, it dissipates the distance between faraway friends and lovers can stay in touch. Businesses can increase their presence and influence without having to physically move. Job opportunities and scholarships are advertised online and anyone can apply from anywhere.

Social media binds communities together, creating a wider sense of togetherness – something happening in one part of the country can be known by all in a matter of minutes. But again, free-flowing information is a double-edge sword. Relevant information spreads as fast as rumours and fake news.

Social media also blurs the line between the private and public sphere, as some argue that Facebook is the Trojan horse of personal freedom. Both restricted and non-restricted content – what you want only a selected group to see or what the whole online community can see – ultimately belongs to Facebook.

Finally, social media ignores social status, something of problem in conservative Myanmar.

No one can judge the respectability of an online user, explains IT expert Ko Tin Htoo Zaw. “It is impossible to know whether the person you talk to is a monk or a layperson, you will address him in the same way. Similarly, you cannot anticipate the age of your counterpart. He or she could be as old as you, but it might well be as old as your father or your mother.”

The biggest problem is that Myanmar jumped into the virtual ocean without learning how to swim first. Few people are aware of the intricacies of social networks, and especially its rules and codes.

As soon as you connect, you step into a world regulated by companies you know precious little about.

Social media platforms can watch every little step you take in the digital world, and these steps leave footprints that belong to them, or to hackers that may infiltrate their network.


Tool or weapon?

Skilled hackers can crack your passwords and lay claim to your content, including the most intimate of your pictures, explains Ko Tin Htoo Zaw.

Most disturbing, he continues, is that hackers can take control of your account and post content on your behalf.

This can be dangerous in a country like Myanmar where the nascent regulatory environment has rather repressive safeguards.

Enter section 66(d) of the Telecommunication Law. The original goal of the clause is laudable, as it aims at protecting online users against defamation. But prosecution has become more stringent over the years. What if a defamatory claim is professed by a hacker through your Facebook account? 

“The online world is not a safe one,” insists Ko Tin Htoo Zaw. “Social media is like fire – it is necessary to build or cook, but it can also burn, and burn badly,” he warns.

One should also listen to Ko Nay Phone Latt, a famous blogger now sitting in Myanmar’s Parliament: “Social media is a lifeless tool. It cannot perform anything on its own. All depends on the user and its intention,” he says.

For the purpose of this story, Weekend met over 20 people. All are using social media for different purposes. But all of them admit that the first thing they do in the morning is rush to their phones. Hopefully, they will also wake up to both the opportunities and the dangers of social media.

–Translation by Zar Zar Soe, Kyaw Soe Htet and Khine Thazin Han