Battle for the Truth

Disinformation in Asia (part 1)

16 April 2019

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Governments across Asia, namely in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and India, are considering ways to tackle the problem of disinformation on social media, particularly as they gear up for crucial elections in 2019.

However, observers note that their strategies and success rates in combatting this issue vary significantly. The battle against online disinformation and misinformation is further intensified by the lack of fully developed democracies in the region. Dr Masato Kajimoto, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong who co-authored a paper on the topic titled Information Disorder in Asia, explains that the extent to which these countries have legislated against “fake news” is rooted in their particular political climate. He says that Thailand and Indonesia introduced or enforced laws against disinformation which could be abused to silence opposition.

Meanwhile, he says, countries such as Japan and the Philippines have taken a more “hands-off approach” to the problem; the former because the severity and impact of disinformation on social media are relatively small, and the latter because the government wants to maintain a steady stream of its own online propaganda, summarises Kajimoto.

“We should keep making an effort to try to tackle this [problem], but the entire region needs more freedom first,” Kajimoto told Global Ground Media. “There is still not much democracy or complete press freedom in Asia. I feel generally pessimistic about the future fight against disinformation in the region because freedom of speech is always somewhat controlled.”

Criminalising ‘Fake News’

Globally, at least 30 countries have attempted to legislate against online disinformation since 2016, according to a 2018 study by academics at the University of Oxford.

The researchers found that the use of automated bots on social media, designed to influence the outcome of elections, is increasing internationally. They concluded that more action is needed to strengthen national guidelines in various democracies before elections, as there is no use waiting “for national courts to sort out the technicalities of infractions after running an election or referendum. Protecting our democracies now means setting the rules of fair play before voting day, not after.” But in Asia, where democracies are often incomplete, enforcing such rules remains a huge challenge, as both dictators and pseudo-dictators would have to adhere to guidelines which they will rarely be punished for ignoring.

In an email to Global Ground Media, Singaporean academic James Gomez, founder of the Bangkok-based non-profit and think tank Asia Centre, says some member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have used the rise of online disinformation as an excuse to attack opposition parties. He argues that by establishing task forces or agencies to monitor online discourse, convening select committee hearings and proposing new laws or revisions, governments often try to limit free speech. “The attempts of governments to countermeasure fake news are disproportionate and have created [a] chilling effect on freedom of expression and self-censorship altogether,” he explains.

Gomez cites the example of Malaysia, where an anti-fake news bill was passed in April 2018, just before the general election, which was designed to “shape and manipulate online discussion in favour of Najib Razak’s government during the election period,” he says. “[The bill] contains a broad and vague definition of ‘fake news’ and was passed without comprehensive debate or deliberation.”

“While [ASEAN] governments claim they introduced such measures to address threats of communal violence or public disorder in the run-up [to the elections], or following heightened political activity such as elections, it seems that the real objectives are to discredit the members of the opposition, civil society, manipulate online discussion, or to prevent criticism of corrupt public institutions,” he adds.

Article by Rachel Blundy.
Editing by Mike Tatarski and Anrike Visser.
Illustrations by Imad Gebrayel.

Read part 2 and part 3 of this series on disinformation.

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