Is Telegram profiting from Myanmar's nightmare?


Photo by Dimitri Karastelev/Unsplash. Free to use under the Unsplash License.

Myanmar military supporters have been using the Telegram messaging platform to attack civilians since the February 2021 military coup. After Meta (previously known as Facebook) banned the Myanmar military and its online outlets from its platform, pro-military propagandists found an alternative avenue to continue their work. They took advantage of Telegram’s weak content moderation policies by disseminating non-consensual and sexualized images of women, doxing dissenters, and inciting violence toward the opposition.

Although a few of the pro-military channels were banned from Telegram, the company continues to fail to take action against hundreds of problematic accounts connected to disinformation operations. Some pro-military accounts even appear to subscribe to the Telegram Premium plan as of October 2022.

It costs around USD 4 per month to subscribe to Telegram Premium, but the price depends on the region where the user is currently living. Telegram premium allows the subscriber to log in to up to four accounts on the same device, while the free plan only allows three accounts to do so. The maximum number of words on photo and video descriptions for free plan users is 1,024, while the premium account is up to 2,048. Premium badges, such as a blue tick, stars, and other special icons next to a username, identify users as Telegram premium subscribers. Other benefits of the premium plan include fewer content restrictions, a bigger storage size, faster download speed, unique stickers, and animated emojis.

Features from this plan can help the Myanmar pro-military Telegram accounts, which are weaponizing the platform as a digital oppression tool.

The Myanmar pro-military paid accounts are widely involved in calling for and collecting the private information of pro-democracy citizens, disseminating abusive content, and launching doxing campaigns against those who oppose them. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a press release stating that pro-junta accounts have taken advantage of Telegram's lax approach to content moderation and gaps in its terms of services.

The screenshots below are two Telegram accounts that have been allowed to remain on the app, though they are widely involved in doxing campaigns. These accounts were also cited in an earlier report by Global Voices on escalating digital authoritarianism in Myanmar.

Telegram accounts by pro-junta supporters

The screenshot below (left), taken on December 30, 2022, shows the account included in the violent incitement as a contact point, while the screenshots on the right show that the accounts purchased a Telegram premium plan, as noted by the blue star or blue check.

The text connects those who want to take revenge against opposition forces by providing personal information and photos. It also gives instructions on how to claim a reward for sharing information.

Brief Translation: Pro-terrorism groups and media are calling for a silent strike and pot strike on February 1. Whoever shares that activity will go to prison. Please send their information secretly to the following accounts.  (screenshot taken on March 17, 2023) Accounts with premium badges that receive people's private information and dox them.

As an example, the Justice Seeker Group-JSG telegram channel, infamous for content that incites violence, posted an assassination call on February 2, 2022. The original post and @JSG20221 account are now inaccessible for reasons unknown. Pro-military channels and users tend to self-delete their messages and change their URLs to avoid getting restricted. Even after a mass reporting campaign, Telegram removed a few pro-military Telegram channels and did not clearly outline their banning process regarding banning harmful Telegram channels in Myanmar. There are problematic channels growing around the Myanmar Telegram market, but the company has largely ignored the issues. 

On the last day of January 2023, pro-military channels shared threats to anti-coup civilians and a request for information about social media users who shared silent strike posts. The silent strike was a protest movement where pro-democracy citizens in Myanmar stayed at home to show they didn’t accept the military coup.

In the message, they mentioned four Telegram accounts that were collecting information about protesters. Those four accounts are Han Nyein Oo, Kyaw Swar, Bo Kyaw, and DS — each with premium badges next to their names. As of March 17, 2023, Myanmar pro-military Telegram users who have connected to the restricted channel violating Telegram terms of service had purchased eight premium account subscriptions, with six of them still active on the plan. Telegram is avoiding addressing the current situation of human rights violation campaigns on Myanmar Telegram channels by allowing them to exist on their platform as premium subscribers.

Since the coup, a total of 21,632 people have been arrested and 3,447 killed, according to the briefing of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) on April 28, 2023. The National Unity Government (NUG), an exiled government that emerged on April 16, 2021, is struggling to get international recognition as Myanmar's legitimate government. Guerilla warfare between Myanmar's junta forces and armed resistance groups is intensifying across the country. The junta is also attempting to hold an election to legitimize its regime as it dissolved the former biggest ruling political party, National League for Democracy (NLD).

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