Social media platforms are key battlegrounds for disinformation, but our current realities urge us to look beyond the four corners of our screens to effectively overcome the resilience of lies in Southeast Asia. Building new platforms to tackle the problem will require local knowledge and help.
Disinformation has significantly evolved since it first captured public consciousness. We have invested time and resources to define the concept, understand its consequences, and develop some tools and solutions to overcome this increasingly complex challenge. Our grim reminder for its existence oddly comes from the lead Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: if we repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
Can we expect it to vanish and never come back? No. In Southeast Asia, three key thoughts must be emphasised to shape a collective strategy against disinformation and ensure that we mitigate its disruptive effects on our civic lives.
Studies in Southeast Asia show how socio-political and economic frustrations are effective hosts to disinformation campaigns. Exploiting ethno-religious tensions is one way of seeding disinformation and, in the case of Myanmar, the outcomes can be devastating. When its military junta ended in 2011, Myanmar opened its market for smartphones and social media platforms. While this was seen as a positive for inclusivity and exchange of views, it also opened the country to exploitation by ultranationalist religious leaders like Ashin Wirathu who used the opportunity to rekindle brewing tensions between the larger Buddhist community and Rohingya Muslims. Soon, actual conflicts arose and Rohingyans became easy targets for ethnic cleansing and wide-scale displacement.
Collective frustration over the erosion of political authority also creates a strong base for disinformation campaigns. The results of two consecutive presidential elections in the Philippines for Rodrigo Duterte prove this point. Promising a drug-free country in six months, for instance, seemed impossible, but this resonated among weary urban dwellers and overseas Filipino workers longing for a “better Philippines.” Duterte won an overwhelming victory in 2016 and sustained public popularity even without fulfilling his impossible campaign promise. Son of the late dictator, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., who does not have any notable accomplishments of his own, used the revisionist narratives of his father’s dictatorial rule as the foundation for his “Bagong Lipunan” (translated as New Society). A decade of seeding lies on Youtube, coupled with savvy vlogs and curated sit-down interviews cemented his mandate last May, much higher than even his predecessor.
We also cannot disregard the prevailing digital divide in the region. At least 75 percent of Southeast Asians are now online, but that does not mean that only the remaining 25 percent are likely to be potential victims of disinformation. The poor have limited access to the internet and therefore may also receive limited information that could affect decision-making. Equally, people with greater privileges are vulnerable to disinformation because they may choose to tune-out of political conversations online and strengthen their political biases. Both networks are prone to narratives that propagate disinformation as a strategy for success.
How then do we turn the tide against the barrage of half-truths, dissimulations, and lies across our online platforms, and those that seep into our offline conversations? Studies emphasise that a combination of cures can create a greater front against disinformation. Regulations are welcome but it should not be at the expense of our individual and collective freedoms of expression and assembly. A survey of the region reflects how governments effectively securitised disinformation and justified the use of state-centric solutions. Subtle measures include state-operated fact checking websites such as Malaysia’s Sebenarnya.my and Singapore’s Factually.sg to refute false statements and provide alternative narratives.
Iron-fisted approaches such as anti-fake news bills in the region proliferated at the height of the coronavirus lockdowns. Large fines and jail time are strong deterrents against anything deemed dangerous, seditious, and inciting social disharmony. However, the lines are blurred when criticism and dissent are also placed in the same category. A group of activists in Singapore for instance were forced to retract their opposition to the Foreign Interference Bill after a stern reminder from the government. Neighbouring country Malaysia stacked charges against independent media organization, Sarawak Report, for exposing the massive 1MDB corruption scandal of former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Instead of anti-fake news bills, improving accountability codes among media organisations and advertising agencies have been more helpful. We can also invest in policies that weed out the political economy of disinformation. Online celebrities, particularly micro-and nano-influencers, are powerful purveyors of falsehoods among niche populations. Currently, they eschew tax collectors given the loose regulations on social media platforms, so implementing a tax on their income may help curb disinformation. Putting tech companies in the spotlight and pressuring them to enhance their regulatory frameworks is also important. We must remember though that increased regulation is counter-intuitive to their business models as it sanctions their money-making agenda: virality and targeted advertisements. We can work with them in taking down malicious content and factchecking information, but we should not put them on pedestals given their complicity to the problem.
A final point emphasises that community-led solutions and rights-based approaches are valuable investments to overcome disinformation. At the regional level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) working committee to tackle fake news is a good start. It already highlights the need to learn from the best practices of each country in tackling fake news and promises collaborative approaches to the issue. It would be more beneficial to broaden its scope because fake news is only a singular facet of disinformation. Securing the support of Track II and III actors ensures a more inclusive approach to the issue. The European Commission pioneered a model of co-regulation and a multi-stakeholder Code of Practice on Disinformation, so these could also be models ASEAN may want to consider.
Localised solutions are important areas to explore. We use traditional storytelling such as legends, folk songs, puppetry, and the arts to remember our histories and strengthen local identities. Repurposing them to confront lies and false narratives can be a means of mitigation. Understanding offline information-seeking behaviours may also unlock fresh perspectives into the spread of disinformation among our networks. The impact of age and strength of personal ties may also affect our discernment for falsehoods.
Digital tools are becoming more sophisticated. The same is true for disinformation – now an indispensable tool in information warfare. This is a stark reminder for Southeast Asia as hard-earned freedoms can crumble against the weight of lies and autocratic innovation. Our realities urge us to leave the comfort of our screens, engage with real people, and collectively create a more empathetic digital world for present and future Southeast Asians.
Emy Ruth Gianan is an Assistant Professor in Economics and Public Policy at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Her research is focused on comparative disinformation challenges in Southeast Asia and its evolving relationship with democracy and digital transformation. Email: email@example.com.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.