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Southeast Asia's problem with fake news

Region needs to find own solutions to stem spread of unreliable information

| Thailand
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Fake news is inflaming ethnic and religious tensions in the race for the new governor of Jakarta, in particular against candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.   © Reuters

As in the West, fake news is becoming a problem in many parts of Southeast Asia, but it is unclear how governments can deal with the issue. The speed at which today's technology propagates fake reports, their visual similarity to "real" news, and the masses willing to believe and act on them appears to be contributing to worsening social and political polarization, while also distorting public opinion and voting behavior. Politicians are taking the issue seriously and want to try and deal with it.

Indeed, fake news is inflaming ethnic and religious tensions in the race for the new governor of Jakarta, in particular against candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. In the Philippines last year, an official in President Rodrigo Duterte's communications office posted a picture on Facebook of a murdered 9-year-old girl as criticism of the Catholic Church and human rights groups -- vocal opponents of the administration's drug war -- for failing to advocate for the country's crime victims. The photo, it turned out, came from Brazil.

In Thailand, the popular messaging service WhatsApp became the conduit for a story in late 2016 that HIV was being spread through canned food, although even that rumor was two years old.

Rumors and disinformation have been part and parcel of politics and business for far longer than the internet has been around. It is just that the medium has changed -- from chain letters and tabloid newspapers, to text messaging and now Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. People have a history of believing fake news and many of its historical variations, and of propagating it too.

Measures attempted to deal with it now in the West, however, might not work as well in Southeast Asia. For example, Facebook is seeking to effectively crowdsource the authenticity of news ahead of the French presidential election, using independent organizations to verify reports, and imposing sanctions including cutting revenue streams that make fake news sites profitable.

This type of measure would be difficult in Southeast Asia, where media capabilities are severely limited and independent organizations are unlikely to have the resources to act as intermediaries. In addition, it appears that fake news propagates not only as an attempt by so-called trolls to profit from internet traffic, but as part of organized campaigns in politics -- even after elections -- so that depriving them of click-based income would not really solve the problem.

Faced with the likelihood that a reliable technology solution is still some time away, more traditional methods are being resorted to. Indonesia's highest Muslim clerical body, the Ulema Council (MUI), is planning on issuing a fatwa against spreading fake news. Philippine legislators, too, want to investigate the practice and the supposed armies of media trolls being deployed by the administration, which one opponent of Duterte has called "threats to national security."

Weak motivation

However, the solutions being contemplated -- especially in the context of Southeast Asian problems including weak and immature democratic institutions and governments that may have an interest in controlling the flow of information -- may be worse than the problem. Governments with motives that are not entirely altruistic may use the same tools that are meant to deal with fake news to stifle genuine discussion or legitimate dissent. When news does not fit the narrative that a government wishes to present to its citizens, tagging it as fake and levying its array of technical and legal tools becomes too tempting. As the cliche goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Companies such as Facebook, Google or Twitter that may be wary of running afoul of a regime's leaders may decide that compliance with a government's wishes may be the easiest way forward to maintain or gain access to fast-growing emerging markets. Telecoms and internet service providers may decide that surrendering internet protocol addresses is necessary to keep their licenses. Social media groups must therefore be wary of becoming too compliant with authoritarian regimes.

There is a history of Southeast Asian citizens hankering for news, no matter how inefficient the process may be. When Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated in 1983, Filipinos in search of information turned to alternative channels.

With mainstream media controlled by the government of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine middle class that would later form the bulk of the resistance to Marcos' regime, turned to video tapes. These contained news pieces sourced mainly from mainstream U.S., European and Japanese television networks, compiled onto now obscure Betamax tapes, copied and circulated by hand. Marcos and his surrogates, whether in government or in the press they controlled, would often claim that the news was misleading, irrelevant or fake, but they could not stop its spread.

Governments and the public likely already have in their hands the same tools that have worked for so long against rumor and the spoiling of reputations, whether offline or online, such as libel claims. What is needed is an update of these rules and judicial processes so that responsibility and liability are clearer and regulators can decide cases faster. These are rule-of-law issues for countries that have imperfect legal regimes, but at least the solutions are domestic and reduce the potential for foreign social media providers to be entangled in flawed systems. Cross-border trolls may be where technology could provide a more applicable solution.

Even mainstream media may eventually and over the longer term find some solace in the proliferation of fake news sites. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, hardly on the same side of the political spectrum, reported similar spikes in new online subscriptions since November, a clear consequence of the political polarization of the past few months.

At some point, the proliferation of fake news will likely lead to a reversion to the mean -- people have only so much time to read all news sources, real or fake, and will ultimately seek out those they perceive to be relatively credible intermediaries -- the traditional mainstream media.

There will always be those who will believe and spread the worst fake news, but that is likely more a function of the social fragmentation and political polarization that we have seen over the past decade. And those factors likely have a greater contribution to the proliferation of fake news than the media trolls who prey upon them.

Bob Herrera-Lim is Southeast Asia managing director of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence.

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