After facing backlash for his visit to Myanmar, a country that has experienced severe sectarian violence and genocide exacerbated by social media, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to his social media service earlier this week to say that his trip was “purely personal.” It was meant to improve his practice of meditation, he wrote in a series of tweets, and there were no conversations with the government or non-governmental organizations while he was there.
A now-deleted Facebook post shared with BuzzFeed News, however, says that Dorsey took a Burmese government-arranged hot air balloon ride during his more than 10-day stay in the country. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the balloon ride took place, but said that Dorsey had no knowledge of the government’s involvement in the flight.
According to a December 2 Facebook post from Golden Eagle Ballooning Myanmar, “[t]he special flight at the request of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, was jointly arranged and with special permissions provided by the Ministry of Toursim [sic], Ministry of Transport, Department of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Culture, and Golden Eagle Ballooning”.
While a local Myanmar publication wrote about Dorsey’s balloon adventure, in which he rode to 3,000 feet above the ground and sat silent for five minutes of meditation, the government connections were previously unknown. The Facebook post was shared with BuzzFeed News by Victoire Rio, the leader of the Myanmar Tech Accountability Network, an umbrella network of NGOs that examines the effects of technology on Myanmar’s society.
Dorsey’s presence in the country sparked a vigorous online debate about the role of social media in Myanmar politics and society after months of violence that has been fueled by online ethnic and religious hate speech. In August, the United Nations released a report that found Facebook was “a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” particularly among government officials that sought to dehumanize the country’s Rohingya minority. State-led violence led to the displacement of an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims last year.
Though Twitter was not mentioned in the UN’s report and has much lower usage than Facebook in the country, Dorsey’s critics questioned the optics of his visit given the current tensions. Dorsey said that he visited the country to learn Vipassana silent meditation from a traditional Buddhist temple, and that he was “aware of the human rights atrocities and suffering in Myanmar.”
“I don’t view visiting, practicing, or talking with the people, as endorsement,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “I didn’t intend to diminish by not raising the issue, but could have acknowledged that I don’t know enough and need to learn more.”
Rio said that her group learned about Dorsey’s arrival the country after he tweeted about it last month, and that at least one NGO tried to arrange a meeting while he was there. That organization were denied after being informed by a Twitter spokesperson that Dorsey was there on a personal birthday trip.
“Given the private nature of his travel, we were quite surprised to hear that he had been invited on a balloon trip arranged by the government,” she told BuzzFeed News. Rio did not know exactly when or why the post was removed from Golden Eagle’s Facebook account, but estimated that it occurred within five days of her staff taking a screenshot of the content.
Golden Eagle did not answer the phone when called by BuzzFeed News on Friday.
“Like Jack said in his thread, he had no contact or discussions with anyone from the government,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “The balloon trip was arranged by a tour company that was paid for their services.”
Rio, who hopes to formally brief Twitter on hate speech that NGOs have found on social media in the Myanmar, said that the company reopened conversations with members of her group on Thursday following coverage of Dorsey’s trip this week. Her group also extended an invite to Dorsey and Twitter to attend the conference on digital rights next month in Yangon, Myanmar.
A Twitter spokesperson was personally unaware if the invite had been extended.