“No, I can’t get much time for my idols. … I have to invest my life in the revolution,” said Kelvin, a 19-year-old democratic activist in Myanmar. (Like others in this piece, he is being referred to here by a pseudonym for his safety.) The erstwhile K-pop superfan first learned strategies for social media organizing and amplification via tireless campaigns to get his idols to trend on Twitter.
Now, he devotes all of his time—and digital coordination and influence skills—to fighting online for free speech and democracy in his home country. He and fellow activists live in constant fear of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the military junta, but they continue to organize tens of thousands of people to spread awareness about ongoing injustices across Myanmar.
Three characteristics define Kelvin and his fellows. First, they are young. Kelvin and the other administrators of their widely popular social media group, which has a significant presence across Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook, range in age from 17 to 21. Second, they heavily rely on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram for coordination purposes because they consider them more secure—free from the prying eyes of the junta. Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, they are all K-pop stans who have temporarily hung up their fan hats to fight for democratic revolution.
Encrypted messaging apps, particularly Telegram, are currently top of mind for researchers and journalists concerned about disinformation. Telegram had already made a reputation for providing an alternative for extremists chased off more mainstream platforms such as Twitter over the course of 2016–17. Since 2018, Europol has been cracking down massively on ISIS on Telegram. But however, law enforcement officials admit that new groups of various extreme ideologies pop up regularly on the platform. For instance, it captured headlines following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Mis- and disinformation on encrypted messaging apps have become particularly dangerous in the global COVID-19 pandemic. In response, WhatsApp, for example, has intervened by limiting message forwarding and notifying users when they’ve received viral messages, though it’s unclear whether this truly limits the spread of disinformation, even if it slows it down. Research does suggest, however, that flagging content as potentially misleading or wrong can deter people from spreading the content further.
But activists in authoritarian countries utilize these platforms to organize in a clandestine manner. Many well-intentioned proposals to limit these apps’ usefulness to extremists and disinformation merchants could also hurt this activism. In our ongoing research, we found that formerly (self-described) apolitical influencers in Myanmar have turned activists and are now leveraging encrypted messaging apps to organize opponents of the military junta but also to find and share legitimate news. Crucially, they bring the tech knowledge they built as fans to bear on a whole new set of issues—and the influence strategies often involve actions a company like Facebook might flag as inauthentic coordinated behavior. In the fight against the global spread of propaganda and disinformation, it is critical to remember there are many places in the world where social media—and particularly encrypted messaging apps and other closed communication services—continue to allow democratic activists and others to organize more safely and securely. The strategies of Myanmar K-pop activists mirror digital information manipulation efforts, which reveals something important: The people who are using these tools, and the ends toward which they use them, matter very much.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been ruled almost exclusively by the military since British colonizers left the Southeast Asian country in the late 1930s. From 2015–2021, it had a civilian government, headed by internationally renowned figure Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet this interim period of fledgling democracy failed to last. Free speech in the country continues to be basically inexistent. The online information environment is highly polluted with disinformation and trolling from the suppressive military regime. Meanwhile, sporadic internet shutdowns further corrode the already limited amounts of information.
Because of these things, skilled digital organizers like Kelvin—with their knowledge of anonymity as well as their cross-platform information gathering and amplification abilities—are instrumental in fighting for democracy in the country.
Due to the legacy of Free Basics in Myanmar, an internet initiative that provided users with free (limited) internet in exchange for creating a Facebook account, Facebook still dominates internet use in Myanmar—but that doesn’t make it safe. Moreover, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now all blocked in Myanmar, so citizens have to hide their IP addresses using virtual private networks in order to use them. “Our administrators organize on Facebook and Telegram,” Kelvin told us. “Telegram is safer for us, so most of the time we always discuss hashtags and taglines on Telegram.” Telegram, meanwhile, does not require a VPN. Bethany said, “I don’t bring my phone when I go out. ’Cause if they check Facebook Messenger, I would be sentenced for life.”
For Kelvin’s group, organizing is multifaceted and multiplatform. He and his collaborators share clear guidelines for their followers on how to use Twitter effectively (including changing location and using a VPN). They create specific hashtags to use in “mass trending parties,” in which they all message at once to make important information trend, and coordinate times for these events. Some Burmese activists do not feel safe using Facebook at all. Bethany said she uses Telegram because she is able to delete messages on her end and the recipient’s end as well, and only uses Facebook with a fake name. Telegram features afford her more safety and security than anything available on Facebook.
In Myanmar, Telegram is not only safer from the surveilling eye of the military than Facebook and Twitter, but also a safer space for reading and fact-checking news. This is an invaluable feature for K-pop activists, as a major piece of democratic activism for people like Kelvin and Bethany is the spread of real news in an information desert. Kelvin gets his news from Indonesian media outlets on Telegram and Signal (they “always give the true information to us,” he says), and uses these platforms to share Burmese news as well.
Kelvin also said that although there is false information spreading on encrypted messaging apps, he is able to fact-check and correct misinformation by reaching out directly to the post owner, and then communicate this verified information with his followers. Bethany, meanwhile, created a Google Drive of information about the human rights violations in Myanmar, and uses Telegram to both do her research and share what she has compiled. She is of the opinion, moreover, that “the false information” in Myanmar “is more on Facebook than Telegram.” Limits to Telegram and other encrypted messaging apps would cut these democratic activists off from activism and trustworthy information, which is in very short supply in Myanmar.
K-pop stans in Myanmar and the United States are similar in that they use strategies cultivated for promoting their musical idols to organize for serious political action. Last year, for instance, K-pop fans organized a widespread initiative where thousands reserved tickets to Donald Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then didn’t show, leaving an almost 19,000 capacity venue largely vacant. K-pop activists in Myanmar differ in their specific political goals and the platforms they use to achieve them, relying on private chat spaces in addition to public forums such as Twitter or TikTok like those who organized the Trump rally buyout. Trevor, an academic in South Korea who writes on K-pop, told us that “[K-pop] is being used by other people … all these different groups from around the world were able to put on this mask of K-pop and use it in their own cultural milieu and environment.”
Encrypted spaces like Telegram and Signal can provide a home for those on the margins—who need anonymity and security to thrive. It is the “who” of groups operating in the margins that bears considering—particularly when it comes to future policy in these spaces. How can democratic uses of these apps be preserved while mitigating harmful ones? In the United States, Telegram has become a home for some violent and racist groups who have been deplatformed elsewhere. In Myanmar, democratic activists would have trouble operating without the very same platform. So, while it is easy to concentrate on the utilization of encrypted messaging apps by white supremacists and propagandists to coordinate disinformation campaigns, spread racist ideology, and call for violence, it is dangerous to have one narrative dominate the entire discourse on regulatory steps.
Instead, researchers and policymakers should think critically about how our interventions prioritize the Western perspective and Western fears about informational issues. K-pop stans, far from mere fan girls and boys, have brought to light an essential issue in the growing problem of disinformation in encrypted spaces. While it has become increasingly clear that measures to intervene to stop the spread of disinformation by legislative and private (technology companies) actors are necessary, regulatory attempts rarely recognize the granularity of usage patterns around the world. Research and dialogue with people outside of the United States is necessary in order to understand what encryption affords to those living under dangerous regimes or in dangerous areas. Different parts of the globe face different issues—and our policies for managing issues should reflect as much. For instance, the regularly surfacing calls for “back doors” for law enforcement into encrypted spaces or recent calls for “banning” anonymous social media accounts induce chills among people working hard for (some) freedom of speech in authoritarian regimes, such as Myanmar. As Kelvin told us, “Please hear us, we are living in the darkest area. So, all you can do, all you can bring justice for us. Please supply the true information of what is happening in our country.”