Internews Center for Innovation & Learning

Internews Center for Innovation & Learning
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Information Ecosystems in Transition: A Case Study from Myanmar

Myanmar’s recent relaxing of political, economic, and social restrictions has provided a unique opportunity to conduct research in Myanmar’s ethnic states. This report on Mon State’s information ecosystem is the first in a planned series of studies into the demographic, news media, and information dynamics that characterize Mon State as well as Myanmar’s six other ethnic states—Chin, Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Kayin (Karen), Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan.

There can be few places left in the world where almost half the population does not know what the internet is. The Mon State pilot research has particular value in attempting to describe the information ecosystem of a target community situated at an unprecedented tipping point in the history of a closed society.  Key structural factors (governance, technology, economy) are changing suddenly, simultaneously exerting profound change in the ways in which citizens access and use information. Whilst experience drawn from other political transitions may be indicative of future trends in Myanmar, there has rarely been an opportunity to track and chart such sudden and extreme change. 
 
An information ecosystem is not a static entity; it is by nature constantly evolving and changing.  Nor is it a discrete form; it can be defined at many levels, from global to national to community to interest-based groupings within communities.  Any examination of an information ecosystem goes beyond traditional audience research on media access and consumption; it adds considerations of information needs and information creation and distribution as fluid systems that adapt and regenerate according to the broader developmental challenges and needs of a given community. 
 
The research focuses on three themes. Firstly, it identifies and maps the information environment in Mon State in terms of technology and media use across urban, rural, non-conflict, and former conflict geographic areas. Secondly, the flow of news and information is examined to see how individuals receive information and then make decisions about sharing it with others. Thirdly, the report examines the dynamics underlying the trust and influence of news and information among individuals in Mon State.  
 
The report draws from quantitative and qualitative research commissioned by the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning (ICIL) from December 16, 2012 to January 5, 2013 in Mon State, Myanmar. The research sampled respondents from across Mon State, and combines quantitative data from a 500 household survey covering urban, rural, non-conflict, and former conflict areas, with qualitative data from 12 focus group discussions and 24 key informant interviews in both non-conflict and former conflict areas.

Some of the key findings of this report are consistent with the current image of Myanmar opening its doors and airwaves to a brave new influx of information. More frequently there emerges a mixed picture as to access, and some thought-provoking findings around trust and flow of information. In Myanmar today there exists the risk that under the guise of increased media access, the formerly “information dark” ecosystems which prevailed across much of the country under military rule may be seamlessly replaced with “information lite” ecosystems in which unsophisticated media audiences consume primarily entertainment and “managed” news content. This sleight of hand would replicate the information ecosystems of the “disciplined democracies” of Singapore, Malaysia and China - to which Myanmar aspires - by (at best) doing nothing to foster the development of an informed citizenry and (at worst) perpetuating state influence over the architecture of public information and discourse.
 
For those who wish to see an increase in both the quantity and quality of content feeding into local information ecosystems as a way of enhancing development or democracy/governance goals, it will be important to temper runaway excitement about Myanmar’s “opening” with an understanding of some of the constraints and idiosyncrasies in the country’s national and local information ecosystems. It is the contention of this paper that a better understanding of the information ecology of any given community or population will be helpful in developing holistic strategies that harness dynamics in that ecology to improve the chances of information actually reaching its destination.  

This report is divided into two parts. "Part One – Research Findings" presents key data and analysis from this extensive study. "Part Two – Additional Data Analysis" provides a broader review of the data for those audiences who are interested in exploring the nuances of this research further.