Southeast Asia: Fake News, Digital Illiteracy and Unfair Laws

A lack of digital literacy is allowing Southeast Asian governments to impose unfair laws.

[Kai Clark | The Monsoon Project]


Fake news is plaguing Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, news breaks that Queen Elizabeth is praising President Rodrigo Duturte; in Indonesia, photos of President Joko Widodo at a communist youth rally explode throughout the Internet; in Myanmar, rumours swirl that mosques in Yangon are stockpiling weapons for terrorist attacks.

All of these stories are false and politically motivated.

How are governments responding? At best, we see police operations in Indonesia against ‘fake news factories’, leading to arrests and operation shut-downs. But most of the region is responding poorly. ThailandCambodiaVietnamPhilippines, and Singapore are introducing laws which civil society groups argue are being used to suppress dissent.

Criminalising the ‘spreading of fake news’ through legislation is not the answer. Many of these countries have undergone democratic backsliding in recent years and cannot be trusted to fairly police speech. Instead, there needs to be a cooperative effort by governments, civil society, and technology companies to push for preventative policies and only allow for punitive action in extreme circumstances.

To understand how to tackle the issue, we first need to understand what ‘fake news’ is and why it is a problematic term.

In theory, ‘fake news’ should refer to fabricated information that is spread and passed off as true. But this doesn’t encompass news articles that mesh truth and fantasy, falsify connections or omit information, nor does it consider the mistakes made by journalists.

To simply dismiss these stories as ‘fake news’ reduces the nuance behind its occurrence to conspiratorial intentions, which is how some authoritarian leaders and their supporters use the term to refer to anything that paints them in a bad light.

Because of the term’s ambiguity, its usage causes more harm than good in accurately describing falsified information. Instead, terms like ’disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’ better capture the distinction between stories. Disinformation specifically refers to fabricated information with an intention to mislead, while misinformation refers to incorrect information that is either intentionally or unintentionally spread.

It is important that this distinction is made, as accusing anything that isn’t strictly true as ‘fake news’ runs the risk of punishing simple mistakes or ignoring the reasons why such false information occurs in the first place.

Sometimes misinformation spreads because of poor journalistic standards. A journalist in Jakarta notes how one morning he received a WhatsApp message claiming Jakarta’s longest highway will be closed for construction. The Jakarta Postrepublished the message despite a simple fact-check showing no plans for construction.

While we don’t know who sent the message or why, the act of ‘lifting’ the story demonstrates how poor journalism standards can feed into a distrust of the media. This emphasises the need for journalists to act as thorough fact-checkers when publishing any news content. This case also highlights the roots of the problem: a general lack of digital literacy and the suspicious origins of some messages.

Much disinformation is politically motivated, whether arguing the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is being assisted by George Soros in a plot to destabilise the country or even in Indonesia where organisations like the online syndicate Saracen systematically worked to spread disinformation, influencing Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election.

Indonesia has seen success by using police operations and existing laws to crack-down on such organisations but it remains the exception. Drafting punitive laws to tackle disinformation runs a high risk of trampling on freedom of expression.

We must focus on the other root cause: a lack of digital literacy.

In many Southeast Asian countries, Facebook is considered ‘the Internet’ – acting as the main portal for most people’s information. Facebook needs to take more responsibility for ensuring the news on its feed doesn’t contribute to further disinformation spreading, by providing information on its news-sites and preventing known perpetrators from spreading further disinformation.

Governments also need to take responsibility for education. Even in Singapore, a country with a relatively educated population, many citizens struggle to distinguish disinformation from fact. This shows the need for education systems to teach the newer generation specific skills on identifying misleading information and doctored photos. There is also a more immediate need for awareness and digital literacy campaigns that target the wider population.

Civil society can also help take a role as independent actors. In Indonesia, crowd sourced websites like ‘turn back hoax’ work to debunk popular rumours spreading.

The growing movement to break up and regulate tech giants can also help. Because of Facebook’s global structure, increased regulation in the US and EU is likely to benefit people in Southeast Asia as well. With these small but combined efforts,  we can begin to turn back the tide on disinformation.

This article was originally published on The Monsoon Project.


Kai Clark is a third-year PhB (Bachelor of Philosophy) student in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He primarily focuses on Myanmar, politics and digital societies.