In Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet and the Internet is Facebook

In Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet and the Internet is Facebook

Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 10:09pm
In Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet and the Internet is Facebook

Just five years ago, Myanmar had one of the lowest phone ownership rates in the world. But by last summer, around 90 percent of the Burmese population had access to a phone with Internet, and more than half of that population use social media, especially Facebook, to get news.[i] I argue that this social media giant has become synonymous with the Internet in Myanmar because of two reasons: Facebook is not a ‘data-hungry’ application and provides curated content for its users. These reasons reflect the spending habit and a shortcoming of the Burmese people. The former shows that Burmese are cautious spenders; Facebook appeals to them because it does not require much data usage, making it a relatively low-cost application. The latter reveals that Burmese lack digital literacy; there is no need for them to learn how to use the wider world web to search for information if it is already readily available on Facebook.

In 2013, the Burmese government ended a decades-long state monopoly over phone service.[ii] As a result, the telecommunications industry has transformed in recent years; the introduction of foreign-owned telecoms service providers such as Qatar-owned Ooredoo and Norwegian-owned Telenor have caused prices of smartphones and subscriber identity module (SIM) cards to fall, and mobile penetration rates in Myanmar to soar from 18.2% in 2014 to almost 90% in 2017.[iii] More players mean more competition in the industry, effectively allowing the Burmese people to purchase a phone with Internet access at a low price. This, in turn, enables tens of millions of people to get connected.

Interestingly, despite having access to the Internet, most Burmese people only use it for Facebook, which takes up “over 85 percent of all internet traffic”.[iv]

Firstly, Facebook is not a ‘data-hungry’ application. From obtaining the latest news to streaming videos, Facebook has a myriad of uses. According to Telenor Myanmar, data usage back in 2015 indicated that Internet browsing took up 43% of all data costs, whereas Facebook only took up 24%.[v]  Because all the content is already embedded into the application, one does not need much data to use it, incentivizing one to use it often. Furthermore, Facebook offers a ‘watered-down’ version of its application in Myanmar that reduces graphic content, lightening the application’s data usage for its users. This was part of Facebook’s now-discontinued Free Basics program, which allowed its Burmese Facebook users access to certain applications and websites for ‘free’, that is, with no data charges.[vi] As such, because using different applications and visiting different websites on one’s phone is definitely more data-consuming than using Facebook for similar purposes, Facebook is seen as a more ‘cost-effective’ means of using the Internet. This motivates Burmese to heavily rely on Facebook for Internet usage. Hence, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet.

Secondly, Facebook provides curated content for its users. Usually, when a Burmese buys a smartphone, Facebook is already pre-downloaded. In fact, a pre-made Facebook account is already linked to the application, with a few pages pre-liked and a couple of ‘friends’ pre-friended.[vii] Since Facebook is already pre-loaded with information, there is no need for Burmese to surf the Internet to obtain information. This makes them rely on Facebook as a content provider rather than being proactive in gathering information from the wider world web, effectively making search engines such as Google and Yahoo obsolete. In addition, compared to other applications, Facebook best addresses the technical problems brought about by competing Myanmar text encoding standards, which facilitates the growth of Burmese content.[viii] Because they are less likely to face Myanmar-language display issues when accessing information, Burmese have little incentive to not use Facebook. Switching away from Facebook means access to fewer readable Burmese content, which defeats the purpose of getting onto the Internet to have the ease of access to information. As such, because Facebook provides Myanmar-language content that is accurately displayed on smartphones’ screens to the Burmese people, it is unnecessary for them to surf the Internet on other digital platforms, which often have language display issues. Therefore, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet.

With a third of its population living below the poverty line, Myanmar is the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.[ix] Burmese in the rural areas tend to buy data in small amounts, ranging from 25MB to 800MB of data, rather than in large amounts, such as 2GB of data, reflecting their low personal incomes.[x] Since the take-home income is rather low, I would assume that necessities such as groceries and rent  take up a relatively large chunk of a typical Burmese’s personal income, especially if the Burmese is the family’s sole breadwinner. This leaves only a relatively small part of the income for purchasing data, making it unrealistic for the Burmese to buy data in bulk. As such, every byte of data counts. Burmese consumers would rather use every byte in the most value maximizing way. In other words, rather than unnecessarily wasting bytes on searching the Internet for certain information, Burmese people would prefer using Facebook since it not only provides curated content but also offers its ‘watered-down’ version that reduces graphic content, effectively lightening the application’s data usage. The appeal of Facebook as an application that does not require much data to use shows that most Burmese people are mindful of their spending.

Myanmar’s phone ownership rates skyrocketed in just a span of half a decade, equipping Burmese from the cities to the rural areas with a smartphone each. This phenomenon led to the (rather heavy) reliance on Facebook as a content provider, reflecting the Burmese’s low levels of digital literacy. Since Facebook ‘spoon-feeds’ its Burmese users information through their often pre-made Facebook accounts, the only skill that users need to have is scrolling through the Facebook newsfeed. Because Facebook appears to be user-friendly and makes information easily accessible, there is little incentive for its users to learn how to use the wider world web to search for information, stagnating the digital literacy rate in Myanmar. The act of curating one’s own content through Internet browsing develops one’s ability to analyze whether information found on the Internet is accurate and true. But because most Burmese do not engage in such an activity, they might not be able to accurately discern fake information from real information on Facebook. The riots in Mandalay, which happened as a result of a false accusation against a teashop owner propagated by Burmese Facebook users, is an example of the consequences of low levels of critical digital literacy as a result of Facebook as a content provider. [xi] Because those involved with spreading the accusation not only did not have the ability to identify fake news but also did not know that posting things on Facebook, regardless of whether the information shared is true or not, carry weight.

In Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet and the Internet is Facebook. With one in five Burmese a Facebook user, Facebook is indeed the to-go social media platform in Myanmar.[xii] Its appeal as a low data usage and a one-stop information application to the Burmese population reveals that Burmese are cautious spenders and lack digital literacy. This fastest-growing Southeast Asian economy will definitely see more of its people getting connected and thus onto Facebook in the upcoming years. Will the population’s low levels of digital literacy pose more threats to the social fabric of the country? If so, should Facebook or the people themselves be responsible for preventing the spread of fake news?

[i] Heijmans, Philip. “The Unprecedented Explosion of Smartphones in Myanmar.” Bloomberg Businessweek, 11 Jul. 2017, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[ii] Trautwein, Catherine. “Myanmar named fourth-fastest-growing mobile market in the world by Ericsson.” The Myanmar Times, 20 Nov. 2015, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[iii] Phochan. “Mobile penetration reaches 63%.” Eleven Myanmar, 26 Dec. 2015, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018; Aung Kyaw Nyunt. “Ministry puts mobile penetration at 90 percent.” The Myanmar Times, 19 Jul. 2016, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[iv] Roache, Ben. “What Myanmar’s Facebook supremacy means for business.” Frontier Myanmar, 16 Jan. 2018, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[v] Vota, Wayan. “Wow! Myanmar is Going Straight to Smartphones.” ICTworks, 30 Sept. 2015, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[vi] Hynes, Casey. “Internet Use Is On The Rise In Myanmar, But Better Options Are Needed”. Forbes, 22 Sept. 2017, Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.

[vii] Refer to footnote 5.

[viii] Refer to footnote 5.

[ix] Moe Moe. “A Third of Myanmar’s Population Living in Poverty.” The Irrawaddy, 13 Dec. 2017, Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.

[x] Mod, Craig. “The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar.” The Atlantic, 21 Jan. 2016, Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.

[xi] Mclaughlin, Timothy. “How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar.” Wired, 6 Jul. 2018, Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.

[xii] Kozlowska, Hanna. “In Myanmar, ‘Facebook has now turned into a beast,’ UN investigators say.” Quartz, 14 Mar. 2018, Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.