Myanmar’s growing doxxing problem

More than two years ago, as Myanmar’s coup unfolded, open-source content provided unique insight into what was happening in the country and the battlelines that were soon to emerge. Live from a roundabout in the capital of Naypyidaw, exercise instructor Khing Hnin Wai unwittingly captured and disseminated live footage of the coup taking place via Facebook. For a brief period, images of Khing Hnin Wai dancing in front of a military convoy became symbolic of Myanmar’s struggle to maintain democracy.

Here at Myanmar Witness, we use user-generated, openly available content like this to identify, verify and report on events across Myanmar involving abuses of human rights and contraventions of international law. We let the evidence speak for itself when we publish the results of our investigations, collaborate with media and share evidence with justice and accountability mechanisms.

Content we examine is rarely as innocuous as Khing Hnin Wai‘s video. Since our inception as one of the witness projects at the Centre for Information Resilience, we have used imagery from social media, geospatial providers, and other forms of ‘open’ sources to contribute towards accountability for crimes being committed. These include horrific beheadings, the widespread intentional use of fire, the impact of the conflict on sites with special protections, and at a scale and sophistication beyond what we see in our other witness projects — hate speech and doxxing.

Doxxing exposes the private information of individuals, such as addresses, phone numbers and more, without their consent. In Myanmar it is done with the intent to intimidate, spread fear and suppress voices. Doxxing has become the digital manifestation of the real-world violence faced by thousands of people in Myanmar everyday. Our findings have repeatedly shown that in Myanmar, the internet is being used as a weapon – and this is steeped in history. Facebook was widely used as a vehicle for the promotion of hate speech and incitement to violence during the Rohingya crisis, which led to the social media company admitting failings in the way it handled content on its platform.

In January this year, following an investigation into online abuse against Burmese women, we released our Digital Battlegrounds report, which showed how the situation is worsening. Its findings were damning: Facebook and Telegram were hosting politically-motivated abuse targeted at Burmese women. Abuse included real-world threats of violence, gendered hate speech and sexually violent commentary. The source of this content was clear – pro-Myanmar Military accounts and users.

To their credit, and in response to Myanmar Witness and BBC outreach, both Meta and Telegram removed a large amount of content which violated their respective terms of service. However, in the case of Telegram, soon after some accounts were removed or suspended, new ones emerged to take their place. Identifying online abusers and their violent content continues to be painstaking and tedious work.

The online information environment in Myanmar has been, and continues to be, part of the conflict. In the wake of an airstrike by the Myanmar Air Force against Pa Zi Gyi village in April 2023, the darkness of Myanmar’s digital conflict resurfaced. With some media reporting more than 160 dead it was one of the worst airstrikes seen in Myanmar and led to an outpouring of domestic and international sympathy and condemnation.

In Myanmar, a ‘black profile’ campaign emerged online, mourning the victims of the attack. Today’s report by Myanmar Witness investigators shows just how the military regime retaliated with a brutal crackdown — online and offline — against those who dared to show sympathy. For engaging in non-violent online protest, individuals were met with arrests, threats and physical violence. Both their digital and real-world voices were silenced.

Pro-junta groups doxxed those who protested digitally as online sympathy grew in the wake of the airstrike. We found a link: at least 11 of the 20 individuals who were doxxed were then arrested for their activities on Facebook within days of being exposed by pro-junta Telegram channels. They were among a total of 69 people who were arrested within three weeks of the airstrike. In the vast majority of cases, social media activity was the stated reason for their arrest by the authorities.

Some months following their arrest, five individuals who were influential and well-known — a former journalist and several celebrities — were released. Multiple pro-junta Telegram channels hinted at their release before it occurred, indicating information sharing, if not coordination, between these channels and the military authorities. The fate of the more than 60 others detained in the same period remains unclear. Our research only scratches the surface of the vicious digital and physical conflict in Myanmar, and there are no signs of it abating.

While those who incite and intimidate online are ultimately responsible, inadequate moderation of content by social media platforms is part of the problem, as is the protracted war in Myanmar which recycles and reinforces the online violence. While others go online to perpetuate conflict, we at Myanmar Witness will continue to use digital content to identify, verify and report on the conflict, and to ensure that those at risk of being silenced have their voices heard.

Online harassment against women is not just a female problem

Osce conference Vienna

Panelists at the OSCE meet on online attacks against journalists: writer Arzu Geybulla; Gavin Rees, Europe director of the Dart Center for journalism and trauma; Becky Gardiner, from Goldsmiths, University of London; journalist Caroline Criado Perez

“This is not something that only ‘ladies’ can fix,” emphasised Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media at an expert meeting on the safety of female journalists in Vienna on 17 September 2015, which Index on Censorship attended.

The importance of collectively tackling the growing problem became an overarching theme of the conference. “There is a new and alarming trend for women journalists and bloggers to be singled out for online harassment,” said Mijatovic, while highlighting the importance of media, state and NGO voices coming together to address the abuse.

Arzu Geybulla and Caroline Criado Perez, journalists from Azerbaijan and the UK respectively, started the meeting with moving testaments of their own experiences. Despite covering very different topics, they have received shockingly similar threats – sexual, violent and personal. “Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you and choke you with my dick” was one of the messages received by Perez after she campaigned for a woman to feature on British banknotes.

Although male journalists also receive abuse, women experience a two-fold attack, including the gendered threats. Think tank Demos has estimated that female journalists experience roughly three times as many abusive comments as their male counterparts on Twitter.

The problem, said Perez, was not just the threats but how the women who receive them are then treated. “Women are accused of being mad or attention seeking, which are all ways of delegitimising women’s speech,” she said. “People told me to stop, close my Twitter account, go offline. But why is the solution to shut up?” She added: “This is a societal problem, not an internet problem.”

“Labelling a person, and making that person an object, is particularly common in Azerbaijan,” said Geybulla, an Azeri journalist and Index on Censorship magazine contributor who was labelled a traitor and viciously targeted online after writing for a Turkish-Armenian newspaper. “Our society is not ready to speak out. You can’t go to the police. The police think it must be your fault.”

The intention of the meeting was to highlight the problem, while also proposing courses of actions. Suggestions included calls for more education in digital literacy; more training for police; more support from editors and media organisations, and from male colleagues. There was some disagreement on whether the laws were robust enough as they stand, or needed an update for the internet age.

Becky Gardiner, formerly editor of Guardian’s Comment is Free section, spoke about how her own views on dealing with online abuse had changed, having initially told writers they should develop a thicker skin. “It is not enough to tell people to get tough. Disarming the comments is not a solution either. That genie is out of the bottle.” Gardiner, who is now a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, is working on research into the issue, as commissioned by the Guardian’s new editor, Kath Viner.

It was suggested that small but crucial steps could be taken by media organisations to avoid inflammatory and misleading headlines (which are not written by the journalist, but put them in the firing line) and to be careful of exposing inexperienced writers without preparation or support. Sarah Jeong from Vice’s Motherboard plaform said, in her experience, freelancers often came the most under attack because they don’t have institutional backing.

The OSCE said this will be the first in a series of meetings, with the aim of getting more organisations to take it serious and to produce more concrete courses of action.

Read more about the online abuse of women in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, with a personal account by Gamergate target Brianna Wu and a legal overview by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire).

Tweets from OSCE’s #FemJournoSafe conference:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://twitter.com/julieposetti/status/644456066432937984

 

Dunja Mijatović: Online threats of killing, rape and violence everyday reality for too many female journalists

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

In a new online column for Index on Censorship, Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, discusses relentless attacks on women journalists, and the impact on their lives.

No job comes without sacrifices, but how many downgrading comments, criticism or even threats can one person take before it becomes too much?

Just consider the experiences of a female journalist that I know:

She had her phone number shared on dating websites, her email and other accounts were hacked, she received death threats on Skype, the website publishing her articles was hacked and a sex video was posted with the implication that she had participated in an orgy. Anonymous articles with lies about her and her family were also posted online.

Imagine being forced to shut down your accounts on social media platforms because of such massive attacks with detailed images of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

At one point, you would probably be inclined to ask yourself if it is really worth it. Is this a career I want to continue to pursue?

In the past few years, more and more female journalists and bloggers have been forced to question their profession. Male journalists are also subject to hate speech and online abuse, but research findings suggest that female journalists face a disproportionate amount of gender-based threats and harassment on the internet. They are experiencing what Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, has described as a “double attack”: they are being targeted for being both a journalist and a woman.

How do these attacks affect female journalists’ lives, their work and society in general? Journalists are used to being in the frontline of conflict and they often deal with difficult and even dangerous situations. But what if you cannot shield yourself from these threats? What if the frontline became your own doorstep, your office or your computer screen?

Not only do these kinds of attacks cause severe physiological trauma for journalists and their families, but by constantly being singled out and targeted with abusive comments, many female journalists may re-evaluate the issues they choose to cover. In this way, such attacks pose a clear and present threat to free media and the society as a whole.

Online abuse must be dealt with within the existing human rights framework, with governments committed to protecting journalists’ safety and addressing gender discrimination. Governments must ensure that law enforcement agencies understand the severity of this issue and are equipped with the necessary training and tools to more efficiently investigate and prosecute online threats and abuse.

We have to acknowledge that online threats are as real and unacceptable as threats posed in the offline world. The landmark resolution 20/8 on internet freedom adopted by United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012, affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression”, and set out a clear path in this respect.

The responsibility to counter online abuse of female journalists does not solely rest with law enforcement agencies, however. The broader media community itself also plays an important role. One of the challenges facing media outlets is how to improve quality of content moderation without invoking censorship.

Sarah Jeong, lawyer, journalist and author of The Internet of Garbage, provides proper context, “moderation paradoxically increases the number of voices heard, because some kinds of speech chills other speech. The need for moderation is sometimes oppositional to free speech, but sometimes moderation aids and delivers more free speech”.

Media outlets need to address the current structures and strategies in place that provide support and relief to journalists who face online abuse. A recent survey of female journalists in the OSCE region carried out by my office suggests that employers’ awareness and active involvement in dealing with these issues is of crucial importance. Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that media outlets are not as involved as they should be.

International organisations should also dedicate resources to tackle this issue, given their widespread reach and vast partnership networks. UNESCO’s work on gender-related aspects of journalists’ safety serves as a good example. In their recent report Building Digital Safety for Journalists, online abuse of female journalists was rightly pointed out as one of the main challenges in building digital safety.

This year I have tried to use my mandate and tools given to me as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to get the OSCE participating states involved. We need to realize that different stakeholders face different challenges, but that each stakeholder’s involvement is a crucial piece of the puzzle in identifying solutions.

To further the discussion on protection of female journalists in the OSCE region, on 17 September my office will host a conference, New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists, to provide a platform for discussions on best practices and recommendations on combating this dangerous trend. The event will be streamed live on osce.org and will feature presentations by high-level experts from all over the world.

This column was posted on 27 August 2015 at indexoncensorship.org