As Myanmar enters the third year of its military coup, violence against protesters has continued to grow both in volume and violence. Since the country’s army, the Tatmadaw (led by General Min Aung Hlaing), overthrew its civilian-led government on February 1, 2021, over 2,460 people have been killed and more than 12,900 people remain in detention for protests against the military regime. A new CNN report digs into how doxxing, specifically, is being used to humiliate dissenting individuals—predominantly women—into silence.
Multiple analyses reveal that pro-military accounts on the social media platform Telegram—most of which are run by men—are publishing women’s private online sexual content (like photos and videos) in an attempt to “punish” them for their pro-democracy views, or support of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), and the People’s Defense Force (PDF), an armed resistance. Beyond the risk of societal shame and stigmatization, the release of these women’s private information also makes them more susceptible to arrest by military forces.
One 25-year-old woman who went by the alias Chomden told CNN that a video of her having sex with an ex-boyfriend circulated on one of Telegram’s public forums shortly after she shared social media videos of dissenters in the summer of 2021. “The whore who is having sex with everyone and recording it in HD… Know your position, slut!” the caption read. It also included her name and Facebook profile photo.
Doxxing is defined as the search and publication of someone’s private information (and content) on the internet without their consent. Unfortunately, those in support of the military coup have established doxxing as a useful anti-democracy weapon. Digital rights activist Htaike Htaike Aung told CNN that as doxxing has grown more common, “more and more women and gender minorities getting afraid to voice their opinions.” Just like revenge porn (also referred to as cyber sexual violence), publicizing women’s private sexual content over their political views works to stigmatize, threaten, and submit them into silence.
In addition to sharing women’s sexually explicit content, doxxers are also posting women’s full names, addresses, and criticisms of their fertility on Telegram. According to Al Jazeera, some women were even subjected to “sexualised disinformation campaigns” that accused them of moral corruption and being sexual prey for the organizations and leaders they supported. Another woman, a social rights activist who was arrested in March and released in November, showed CNN the comments on a popular pro-military Telegram channel that targeted her: “After everyone has f**ked her, deliver her verdict.”
In September, Wired reported on Telegram’s well-documented problem with allowing users to dox people. For example, after a pivot to a pro-military stance shortly after the coup began, popular Burmese influencer Han Nyein Oo moved to Telegram after being banned on other social media platforms like Facebook. Amidst other graphic content, Han Nyein Oo also posted “doctored pornographic images purporting to be female opposition figures” that were cross-posted on other pro-military channels.
Despite criticism, the platform maintains that it does not tolerate doxxing: “Telegram is a platform for free speech. However, sharing private information (doxxing) and calling for violence are explicitly forbidden by our Terms of Service,” Remi Vaughn, the platform’s spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.
A data science company commissioned by CNN analyzed ten public pro-military Telegram channels and found that in the two years since the coup, 1,199 sexual messages—including sexually explicit images and sexual videos—were posted. Of these, “almost all of the images and videos (98%) targeted women.” Another report by the nonprofit Myanmar Witness analyzed 1.6 million posts across 100 Telegram channels and found that the number of abusive posts directed at women—many calling for them to be “punished”—increased eightfold between the start of the coup and July 2022.
“We’ve seen two high profile cases where two well-known women were arrested right after being doxxed,” Me Me Khant, head of Myanmar Witness research, told CNN. “The channels also rejoiced after their arrests.” The report further revealed that many of the pro-military channels seem to actually be working with the military—making it nearly certain that anyone criticizing the junta can be located or arrested.
“Telegram claims to be such a revolutionary platform helping Iranians, (and) Hong Kongers,” digital rights activist Victoire Rio told CNN. “But when it comes to Myanmar, it fails to recognize how the platform is abused.”