Fake news in Asian politics

Fake news in Asian politics

Asian politics has been riddled with dissemination of rumours and fake news over the past decade. Government initiatives thus far have failed to fully counter the activity. Indeed, some argue that legislation often acts to smother political opposition. 

A growing risk

A report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2013 identified the increasing misinformation in social media as a major global risk. The document outlines significant dangers posed by fake accounts used to defame political opponents, the difficulty in stemming the spread of misinformation and triggering government-led measures that constraint freedom of speech.

2016’s UK Brexit referendum and US presidential election brought “fake news” to the forefront of western media. The 2019 WEF report has highlighted that tweets containing fake news outperform those containing accurate information, identifying the interplay between potent emotions and technology as a disruptive factor in the media landscape.

In South and Southeast Asia, the impacts of online misinformation have been felt significantly.  Last year, India, where Facebook users exceed 300 million,  experienced outbreaks of violence incited by falsity spread mostly via social media. In one particular case, rumours of child abductions circulated over WhatsApp, and other social networks, led to 24 deaths from mob violence. In Myanmar, according to a UN report, Facebook messages led to “real world discrimination and violence” when its “slow and ineffective” reaction failed to effectively block shared content promoting hatred against Muslims.

Attempts to curb online misinformation

Pressures from users and governments have driven social media platforms to take steps to prevent further crises. Facebook has announced plans for a new operations centre in Singapore focused on elections integrity. The company also increased safety and security staff from 10,000 in 2017 to 30,000 in 2018.  Moreover, in Indonesia Facebook recently removed hundreds of accounts linked to Saracen, an online group accused of spreading fake news and hate speech.  WhatsApp has limited the frequency of forwarded messages in response to the violence in India.

Multiple Asian Governments are taking steps to counter the usage of fake news and automated accounts for electoral manipulation. Earlier this month, an Indian parliamentary panel pressed Facebook to do more to tackle fake news ahead of the general election in May. Last April, Malaysia was the first Asian country to issue an anti-fake news law. Countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have recently passed (or are considering to pass) anti fake news legislation. Such laws aim to make platforms more responsible towards user misconduct by imposing fines upon failure to remove illegal content. Legislations also emit jail sentences for individuals.

Post-truth politics?

These initiatives have seen their fair share of controversy.  Clarissa David, Communications professor at the University of the Philippines, voiced that they lack concrete justification and harm freedom of speech.  There are fears that the new rules focus too much on preventing anti-state activities and that they fail in defining the legal parameters of fake news. In Thailand, the military junta filed charges against Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, the deputy leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), for allegedly posting false information online. Pongsakorn admitted to posting a fake article, but he insists he deleted it minutes after learning it came from an unreliable source.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of FFP, was also charged for spreading fake information under the Computer Crimes Act. Thanathorn argues that the law was used to “silence and threaten” opposition. Incidentally, the FFP was one of the main contenders of the Thai Junta during the recent general election.

These allegations have raised concerns that the new regulations are enabling corrupt governments to stifle political rivals and free speech. One Oxford University study claimed that Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, benefitted from fake social media accounts and click armies to win the 2016 election and to spur its anti-drug campaign. However, there is evidence to suggest that strategic use of miss information does not stop with the presidency. Communication researchers from the University of Leeds found that in the Philippines “click armies” work for “multiple political parties both at the national and local level”.

Inadequate response to the issue

The lack of cross country cooperation is highly inefficient in tackling fake news on the continent. The current disjointed patch work of separate initiatives from different nations fails to appreciate the international characteristic of fake news.

The absence of a universal definition of fake news is another majorly testing factor for these initiatives. The cryptic usage of the term often leads to an arbitrary interpretation and enforcement of laws. Successful misinformation agents operate in the intersection between fake news, misinterpretation and exaggeration. Malaysia’s anti fake news legislation was almost repelled in Parliament because of its ambiguity.

In the long term, these national initiatives have the potential to set the groundwork for international cooperative efforts and more specific common definitions. Last May’s ASEAN endorsed Framework and Joint Declaration to Minimise the Harmful Effect of Fake News is an encouraging first step in this direction. However, until the vision of these initiatives materialise, online misinformation will continue to represent a major challenge for social stability and freedom of speech in Asia.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Borja Fernandez

Borja Fernandez is an analyst with focus in Asia-Pacific geopolitics and economics. He holds an MA in International Relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals. He has studying experience and a strong interest in China and he is fluent in Mandarin. He worked on economic affairs and climate finance policy at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific, in Thailand.