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Opinion

Social media abuses threaten Asia's democratic elections

Singapore shows governments are ready to curb fake news but such actions can limit free speech

A string of elections across Asia is highlighting a threat to democracy: social media's propagation of fake news and misinformation.

Voters who went to the polls in Thailand on March 24, and those who will cast their ballots soon in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, are facing this challenge. They may be joined by Singapore, where a parliamentary poll might also be held this year.

The key question is -- can the problem be fixed without trampling on basic rights of privacy and free speech?

The issue has been highlighted by the controversy surrounding a government-backed bill in Singapore that would give the authorities powers to hit Facebook and other social media groups with heavy fines if they do not comply with new censorship rules.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would make it illegal to spread "false statements of fact" in Singapore, where that information is "prejudicial" to Singapore's security or "public tranquility."

Individuals found guilty of contravening the act can face fines of up to 100,000 Singapore dollars (about $73,000), and, or, up to 10 years in prison. Companies found guilty of spreading "fake news," can face fines of up to one million Singapore dollars. Human Rights Watch, the non-government organization, has warned the new powers could be used for "political purposes."

Singapore is not alone in Asia. In the region as in the rest of the world, the struggle against fake news is being fought hard.

As a stopgap measure, governments, businesses and others are looking for technological solutions to identify and block the spread of misinformation and pernicious content. But, ultimately these technology "fixes," alone, may not be enough to prevent the corrosive effects of social media.

Meanwhile, a regulatory assault on the world's dominant tech companies is gathering force, as the Singapore example shows. This will entail a fundamental overhaul of the business models of social media platforms as well as the breaking up of monopolies, based on new antitrust standards, and larger penalties for lawbreakers.

Asian governments are watching closely as regulators in EU and the U.S. go after big tech. The EU has just hit Google with a $1.7 billion antitrust action, which would bring Google's total EU penalties to $9.3 billion since 2017. In the U.S., where data capitalism has also come under fire, Facebook is facing criminal charges over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, along with other accusations involving massive breaches of trust and of privacy.

These are welcome developments.

However, this must all be viewed in a broader context, as the digital landscape fragments into a "splinternet," based on different political and social values.

Wendy Hall and Kieron O'Hara of Southampton University in the UK have identified four emerging blocs: the libertarian bloc (which is broken); the commercial bloc (which is dominated by a handful of tech companies); the European bloc, based on tough regulation (which is gaining appeal); and the China-style digital authoritarianism bloc.

Asian democracies will adopt and adapt ideas from all four camps. But there is a good chance that after the 2019 elections, governments will choose the enforcement of accountability, or even authoritarian control, over individual rights and privacy.

In Thailand, despite allegations of irregularities in vote counting, the opposition Pheu Thai party, loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, waged a successful social media revolt against the military junta. If Palang Pracharat, for the junta, wishes to stay in power, it will have to move further toward digital authoritarianism.

Government staffs search for violations of law in a social media war room in Bangkok on Mar. 8.   © Reuters

In the Philippines, strongman President Rodrigo Duterte has also tried to muzzle the opposition. As with Duterte's presidential election win, expect to see social media awash with fake stories.

In India and Indonesia, voters are far less constrained by government pressure. But that makes the role of social media, and criticism of it, all the more important. This is especially true for India, where hate speech on WhatsApp, the messaging network, has been linked to lynchings.

Back on the technology front, companies and tech-savvy citizens are promoting the use of "fact-checking" algorithms to prevent misinformation spreading. Another technology stopgap involves curtailing mass mailings and setting limits on sharing capabilities on social media apps, thereby slowing the spread of misinformation. In India, for example, after the mob lynchings, WhatsApp limited a single person's forwarding options of a message to five times. With over 200 million users on the Indian subcontinent, however -- all forwarding texts, in real time -- this approach clearly has failed.

Yet another stopgap involves the use of technology to identify and block machines from masquerading as humans. In Malaysia's 2018 elections, "bots," including human-sounding chat-bots, were behind the mass distribution of targeted texts and phone calls, reaching millions.

Asia's 2019 elections will confirm how the basic business model of social media platforms, which value anonymity, creates a serious lack of accountability.

Technical measures, alone, will have limited success in stopping fake news. The tech companies' collective failure will give policy makers license to choose remedies that would previously have been rejected as undemocratic. Increasingly, there is talk, for example, of assigning social media users with digital identification numbers.

This accountability approach is gaining support, everywhere. In the West, there is a growing consensus among computer scientists that if online robots are not identifiable as such, social media's corrosive effects could destroy democracy.

In the end, Asian policy makers will find that the best technological approach to preventing fake news may be the simplest one: hitting the kill switch. The Indian government has formally asked its telecom operators to advise how Facebook and WhatsApp can be blocked entirely.

With over a billion people, India is the world's most populous democracy. Yet, ironically, it may turn to an approach reminiscent of China's censorship and authoritarian practices.

New Delhi has cut off services to Facebook and Twitter in Kashmir 28 times in the past five years, and in 2016, access was blocked for five months -- on the grounds that these platforms were being used for anti-social and "anti-national" purposes.

Rather than resorting to censorship and blocking internet access, however, democratic governments should first try responsible regulation, through partnerships with platform companies and civil society. But this cannot happen until the basic social media business model, with its focus on targeted advertising, is fixed.

According to Stuart Russell, a University of California, Berkeley computer scientist and a vocal critic of social media, the heart of the issue is "click-through" advertising. The click-through advertising model feeds content to people that best aligns with their interests, but according to Russel, what the algorithms really do is modify behavior by feeding people information that steers them toward predictable extremes. Hence the proliferation of fake political news on the far left and the far right, and the abundance of incendiary "clickbait" items designed to pull people toward these extremes.

The latest round of elections in Asia will result in countermeasures against fake news. Hopefully policy makers will work closely with other stakeholders and use a smart balance of technology and regulations to fix the problem, while taking care to not crush democracy itself.

Alex Capri is a senior fellow in the Business School at the National University of Singapore.

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