Last month, an aid worker in Myanmar named Khon Ja flipped through her Facebook feed and noticed something was missing. Something important.
A page run by a rebel group that controls a stretch of jungle-covered territory near China’s border, known as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, had disappeared.
Its reports on the location and severity of fighting no longer appeared on Facebook. Neither did its posts on the welfare of civilians under its control.
Ms. Khon Ja, who works to protect civilians from the ravages of Myanmar’s decades-long civil war, had come to rely on the Facebook page, which might reveal, say, battle lines edging toward a village.
“Sometimes we need to evacuate people,” she said. Other times, her team could at least warn local families to take cover, and send money for blankets and medicine.
Reporters are largely blocked from conflict areas in Myanmar, and government accounts are considered unreliable. The rebels’ accounts, too, had to be read with a skeptical eye, but did offer valuable, real-time updates of what was happening on the ground.
Like many in Myanmar, the rebels communicated with the public largely through Facebook — until the social network said no more.
‘Facebook is very important for us’
When Ms. Khon Ja tried to find out why the Ta’ang National Liberation Army had gone silent, she learned that it was among four rebel groups in Myanmar that Facebook had decided to ban. Not only did it take down a host of pages, but it also prohibited users from posting words of praise or support for the rebels.
“We don’t want the platform to be used to normalize or further the goals of these groups,” said Rafael Frankel, Facebook’s policy director for Southeast Asia.
Mr. Frankel cited reports that the guerrillas had attacked civilians, backed up by independent rights groups, and said removing their posts was meant to curb their ability to organize or encourage violence.
The bans are the latest sign of Facebook’s growing power in many countries, where its control over the flow of information and public discourse makes it akin to national broadcaster, public utility and political regulator all rolled into one.
And they are the latest test of Facebook’s ability to wield that power responsibly.
But Facebook’s intervention has brought unintended consequences that have troubled humanitarian groups and conflict experts in Myanmar.
The bans, they say, have swept up pages crucial for protecting some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. And some worry that they will further tilt control of information about the conflict toward the military, which rights groups consider to be guilty of far graver atrocities than the rebels.
Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Facebook saying he was “deeply troubled” by the bans. He called the groups’ Facebook presence “important to broader efforts at a lasting peace” and warned that their removal would disrupt efforts by humanitarian groups and by international conflict observers, “including the United States.”
Ms. Khon Ja, crediting the platform’s reach in Myanmar’s conflict zones with helping to save lives, said, “Facebook is very important for us.” Without pages like that of the Ta’ang rebels, she worried, it could become harder to shield civilians from violence.
“By the time that real fighting occurs, it’s very difficult to evacuate,” she said. “We have to wait until everything finishes, and we lose a lot.”
‘The militarization of Facebook’
Facebook’s ubiquity has made it an essential tool for liberation movements and terrorist groups the world over. But the line between those two is not always clear. Even governments and courts struggle with the unenviable task of determining which is which.
Facebook’s growth-obsessed business model, which brought in tens of billions of dollars in revenue last year, means the company increasingly grapples with that question, too, as it dominates new markets, many of which are politically volatile.
“The militarization of Facebook,” said Nicola Williams, an analyst at the Asia Foundation, “will continue to be an ethical and regulatory issue for Facebook.”
Stakes are high in many countries, where nascent democracies and fragile conflicts hang in the balance, but especially in Myanmar. The military there has been accused of hair-raising atrocities against minorities, including genocide against ethnic Rohingya. After decades of conflict and suspicion, separating hero from villain is rarely easy.
Myanmar’s rebel groups, many of which purport to represent one of the country’s persecuted ethnic minorities, pose an especially difficult case.
Many are bands of insurgents who extort money from civilians and conscript them. Sometimes they kill them.
But some act as de facto governments in the territories they control. To their supporters, they are “leaders of their ethnic minority’s effort to achieve greater recognition and rights,” according to a 2017 Amnesty International report, as well as “protectors from the Myanmar Army,” which has been credibly accused of genocide.
Facebook cannot always separate out those roles.
In imposing the bans, Facebook went against a report that the company itself commissioned last year on its human rights impact in Myanmar. The report, assembled by the consulting firm BSR, warned that banning armed ethnic groups could censor “legitimate expressions of opposition or dissent” as well as “content that is intended to expose human rights violations, rather than encourage them.”
Facebook said that it broke with the report’s recommendations because the company determined that removing the groups outright would most effectively curb violence. Mr. Frankel said the ultimate goal was “making our platform safe.”
Facebook also briefly shuttered the official page of rebel groups’ peace negotiators. Amid a backlash from activists, who warned that the decision would disrupt peace talks, the company reinstated the page.
But Arakan Army officers had used Facebook’s messenger service to coordinate with aid groups, a now-closed line of communication that Ms. Khon Ja called crucial for steps like reuniting former child soldiers with their parents.
But of all the pages Facebook removed, none alarmed activists as much as the closing of Laiza TV. It is mostly known as a radio station and video-filled Facebook page, both widely followed in Myanmar’s Kachin State.
Many members of the Kachin ethnic minority support the Kachin Independence Army, and Laiza tends to do so, also. Facebook said that this was why it removed the page.
But Laiza also conveyed day-to-day news from the war-torn region, where government accounts are unreliable and most media cannot go.
Gum San Nsang, the president of the Kachin Alliance, a diaspora group based in Washington, said that the Facebook ban had cut off information about the tens of thousands of Kachin who, as a result of the fighting, live in camps and rely on groups abroad for help.
“We don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know the latest on displaced people, we don’t even know the weather,” he said, referring to the tendency of floods or landslides to displace vulnerable communities. “Facebook is the only thing we have to keep in touch.”
A battle or disease outbreak might prompt a torrent of donations, but only if the news can get out. Outlets like Laiza rely on Facebook because it is the only online tool that is both widely available and cannot easily be hacked by the government.
Ashley South, a researcher who studies Myanmar’s conflicts, said Facebook’s bans had cut off thousands of civilians from a diaspora that “has allowed this community to survive.”
“I was really appalled when I read the news about Facebook’s ban,” Mr. South said. “I’m quite angry about it.”
The page’s popularity also made it a hub for notices about missing persons or families split apart in the fighting. The far more popular radio station remains online, but activists said that many reunions might not have been possible without the Facebook page.
Naw Bu, Laiza’s head, said Facebook had given him no advance notice or explanation. He said his outlet was not affiliated with the rebels. And its reports, he said, provided important information about the region, including its growing measles problem.
“The impact only goes to innocent people,” Mr. Naw Bu said. “It’s sad.”