YouTube said on Friday that it had cut five television channels run by Myanmar’s military from its platform, the latest in a string of moves by American internet giants to pare back the military’s online footprint since it seized power in a coup last month.
The company — a unit of Alphabet, which also owns Google — said in a statement that it had removed the channels and videos based on its community guidelines, though it did not specify what rules the military had broken. The blocked channels included the government-run Myanmar Radio and Television and the military-owned Myawaddy Media, both of which broadcast news, sports, military propaganda and martial anthems.
The removal came at the end of the bloodiest week of protests since the military overthrew Myanmar’s fragile democratic government on Feb. 1. On Wednesday, more than 30 people were killed as the security forces used increasingly brutal means to crush anti-coup protests. At least one person, a 20-year-old man who was shot in the neck, was killed during a protest on Friday in the city of Mandalay.
Myanmar’s post-coup politics have also played out digitally. Protesters have used social media sites to plot demonstrations, to spread memes denouncing the generals’ power grab and to share videos of police and military violence.
The military, in turn, has stormed telecom data centers and blocked social media sites. At times, it has cut off internet access entirely. When they can get online, many people in the country have turned to specialized software to get around the blocks and log onto sites like Facebook.
In the weeks since the coup, internet companies have slowly beefed up controls aimed at the military. Last week, Facebook said it would block all military pages from its site and cut advertising by military-owned businesses, in one of its most direct interventions in a country’s politics to date.
YouTube’s takedown appeared to stop short of Facebook’s broader ban. A YouTube spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether Alphabet would take further action against the military, like cutting off its businesses’ access to ads, as Facebook did. YouTube’s move was previously reported by Reuters.
The coup and the ensuing protests have put American internet firms in an increasingly familiar, if uncomfortable, position as political arbiters in fights over democracy and human rights far from their home. Nationalist leaders around the world, from the Philippines to India to the United States, have used Facebook and other platforms to spread disinformation and incite violence.
Myanmar had already become a test case for dealing with some of the internet’s most dangerous excesses. Facebook, for example, has faced intense criticism over how the military has used the platform to promote hatred toward Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, the victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the military.
Myanmar joined the global internet only after the generals who had controlled the country for years eased their grip about a decade ago. Since then, people in Myanmar have taken to online life with intense enthusiasm. Sites like YouTube and Facebook have become town squares for a country that got online late.
Though the military has been ham-handed in its approach to internet blocks since the coup, it has years of experience with online disinformation. While it was committing atrocities against the Rohingya, for example, members of the military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that demeaned the mostly Muslim ethnic group as foreigners living illegally in Myanmar, even though many had been there for generations.
In 2018, what was then a hybrid civilian-military government diverted $4.5 million from an emergency fund to use for a social media monitoring team under military command, according to tech experts in Myanmar.
Since then, internet companies have sought to show that they were alert to the military’s tactics. During campaigning before national elections in Myanmar last year, Alphabet took down two YouTube channels that it said it were linked to influence operations supporting the party that was formed by the former military junta. After the elections, the company took down 34 more YouTube channels connected to the military. In the last few months, it cut another 20 such channels and 160 videos for violating policies related to hate speech, harassment and violent content, among other infractions.
Despite the blocks, activists in Myanmar complain that the tech companies are still slow to pull down disinformation and violent content. The official pages of several of the television channels taken down by YouTube had already been blocked by Facebook. And since Facebook’s wider ban on military pages, a number of replacement pages appear to have sprouted up to replace those that were removed.