A Myanmar media site imitating the look of RFA has been outed by a watchdog group and local news outlets as a serial spreader of disinformation and hate speech, drawing calls for legal action from the ruling party that was the target of many of the false reports seen aimed at influencing Nov. 8 elections.
Radio Free Myanmar (RFM) had posted more than 300 false news articles in a single month, ramping up its output of disinformation about COVID-19, the Muslim Rohingya community, as well as slurs against leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy, said the fact-checking site Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO).
RFM’s posts backed Myanmar’s military and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and MIDO’s ‘Real or Not’ analysis showed that the false reports were shared by supporters of the pro-army party, drawing the attention of local news outlets in Myanmar.
“It looks like Radio Free Asia, sounds like Radio Free Asia and even purports to be from the same country as Radio Free Asia. But anything beyond a cursory glance reveals that Radio Free Myanmar is nothing like the United States-based media outlet,” wrote the on-line news outlet Frontier Myanmar in an expose on the group last week. Radio Free Asia is a Washington-based nonprofit broadcaster and publisher of online news, funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
“Rather than a reputable news organization, RFM is spreading disinformation – usually about the ruling National League for Democracy and Rohingya Muslims – that is almost certainly aimed at influencing Myanmar’s November 8 election,” said the Oct. 9 report.
“Although RFM emerged in late 2019, the amount of RFM content surged in August and September as the election drew closer. The vast majority of RFM content is disinformation,” said Frontier Myanmar.
MIDO’s CEO Htike Htike Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service that said “RFM misrepresents itself as a news agency with editors that are not from Myanmar. For those who don’t know, it seemed authentic since it showed the editorial team and background information. They also published the news consistently just as the major news media do.” he said.
The MIDO report investigated a man named name Kyaw Zin Win who was identified by RFM as the editor of the site, but the image posted on its site turned out to be that of a Nepalese journalist.
False reports on hydropower dam, taxes
The Frontier Myanmar expose identified the profile of a Maung Maung that was created in August, but had over 400 posts of RFM content on Facebook.
“Maung Maung frequently posts content from RFM that criticizes, attacks and insults the NLD, often while spreading false information,” said the online news outlet.
Maung Maung’s RFM posts in August falsely accused the NLD of restarting the controversial, long-suspended China-backed Myitsone Dam and falsely claimed that the NLD’s new tax law will dramatically hike taxes, Frontier Myanmar said.
RFA has sought comment from Facebook for on RFM and related accounts, but has yet to receive a reply.
But Frontier Myanmar quoted Rafael Frankel, director of public policy for Facebook in Southeast Asia, as saying that the U.S. social media firm was aware of RFM and has “taken action on a number of pieces of content.”
“In fact, the first piece of content that we removed under our specific Myanmar elections misinformation policy was content attributed to RFM,” added Frankel. He said that post claimed the NLD was replacing all of its candidates with Rohingya Muslims and was removed as “content that could damage the integrity of the Myanmar election.”
The RFM episode was not Facebook’s first brush with fake news and hate speech in Myanmar, where the social media platform is tremendously popular. Online marketing companies have estimated there are more than 20 million users out of the population of 54 million people.
NLD seeks indictments
Facebook banned about 20 individuals and organizations – some and more than 50 pages associated with the Myanmar military -- from the platform in 2018 “to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation on Facebook."
At the time, Facebook had been criticized for allowing posts that spread hatred against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. A scorched-earth Myanmar military campaign in 2017 drove 740,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh and killed thousands.
USDP’s spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint told RFA the party had no knowledge of the RFM site despite the investigation results that showed sharing of posts.
“I don’t know about them. We are busy struggling with election victory.”
President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said the government would not go after false news attacks on leaders, but that disinformation about the election and COVID-19 pandemic will be addressed.
“We are not going to indict the persons and organizations spreading the fake news. But we are going to make them known as disseminators of fake news,” he told a news conference on Oct. 10.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said those who spread false reports to attack the party “should be indicted.”
“Our party should not concede to these attacks. I want to say the party will take actions against these abusers,” he said.
The NLD is seeking re-election after taking power from the pro-military USDP in the last national vote held in 2015. Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
The stiffest competition will again be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put forward 1,129 candidates.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.