In East and Southeast Asia, misinformation is a visible and growing concern

Editor’s note: The Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong has recently embarked on a project to map the misinformation ecosystem in Asia and has just published its first overview report. The following article is written partially based on that report and on upcoming articles about the project.

Efforts to control or manipulate the public information space to influence people’s beliefs and opinions are certainly not new in Asia. Misleading rhetoric, cherry-picked factoids, gross exaggerations, made-up news and other fallacious messages have long been part of the communication tactics adopted by political leaders, hyper-partisan groups, some media outlets and religious extremists.

While the phenomenon itself is not unfamiliar, its impact has become increasingly visible as many Asian countries have embraced transformative digital technologies, especially smartphones, that altered people’s lifestyles and media consumption behavior. Like in other parts of the world, the word ‘fake news’ has entered into the everyday lexicon in many Asian countries. However, conversations around misinformation and disinformation are taking varying forms across East and Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia, the government has been stepping up measures ahead of nationwide regional polls this year in June and the presidential election next year. President Joko Widodo in January appointed a chairman of the newly established National Cyber and Encryption Agency to combat “fake news on social media” along with the state intelligence agency and the police, which has stirred some criticism. Earlier this month, the police arrested suspected members of the Muslim Cyber Army for spreading fake news and defamatory content. Members of another online content syndicate, Saracen, were arrested on similar accounts last year.   

Indonesian authorities have actively been blocking accounts or removing content deemed harmful to society. In the country, all types of misinformation are singly referred to as the Indonesian word for "hoax." Google, Facebook and other social media and messaging app companies are reported to be working with the government to tackle the spread of harmful content, including pornography and “hoaxes” with blocking, removing or flagging certain content. The Communications and Information minister also announced in January it would use a web crawler to track down and report websites spreading fake news.

The government in Singapore has been mulling over legislative measures. Although the country has yet to see any major social or political issues caused by misinformation as a whole, according to a government poll conducted last year, more than 90 percent of Singaporeans supported strong laws to remove or correct fake news. In January, the parliament voted unanimously to create a committee of MPs who will focus on the problem of deliberate online falsehoods. The potential new legislation raised concerns that it would further stifle the limited freedom of expression in the country; in February, journalists, academics, advocacy groups and others made public the submissions they sent to the select committee

Last year’s presidential election in South Korea was plagued with disinformation through online chat apps and printed pseudo-newspapers. More than a dozen proposals to amend existing laws are pending in the National Assembly at the moment (all are available here); despite their differences in details, about half of such proposals aim to impose responsibility on information and communications services providers, including the operators of search engines, portal websites, and social networking services, requiring them to regulate and manage false content and penalizing them for failing to do so.

The ruling Democratic Party also launched a fake news countermeasure task force in January and has filed around 500 complaints against the people disseminating the allegedly problematic content. Democratic Party lawmaker Shin Kyung-min proposed an amendment to the Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection Act that would criminalize manipulating online comments using bots.

The Philippines has seen escalating proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, mostly directed at political rivals of the government and other state critics, including the media. The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) and its Assistant Secretary Esther Margaux “Mocha” Uson, a former member of the popular dance group Mocha Girls whose blog has 5.4 million followers, have often been singled out as one of the most prominent and controversial sources of malinformation. In February, Uson asked followers of her Facebook page whether the 1986 People Power Revolution that ended the 21 years of autocratic rules by Ferdinand Marcos was “a product of fake news” — 84 percent said yes.

Also in February, the Filipino Senate’s Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chair, Grace Poe, filed a bill that would hold public officials and government agency employees accountable for disseminating false information. But Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque immediately dismissed such a bill as unconstitutional. In the past, President Rodrigo Duterte said such a law wouldn’t be passed in Congress. Duterte had previously called the online portal Rappler a “fake news outlet” in January.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly praised U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on news media at the annual dinner his government hosted for more than 3,000 members of the media in January and lauded Trump’s so-called Fake News Awards. In February, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy filed a suit against Facebook in California, saying that Hun Sen used the social media platform to spread false stories about political opponents. It also demanded that Facebook share any information related to the “likes” the Cambodian premier has collected on his page, claiming that he purchased millions of followers illegitimately.

Bogus information does not seem to go viral easily in Japan. Even the most widespread politically driven “fake news” story during the general election late last year was shared just a couple of thousand times on Twitter, while an article debunking it spread almost twice as far. But in February a tweet with a false claim about earthquake relief donations for Taiwan was shared far and wide, recording more than 60,000 retweets and 48,000 likes within a day.

News media later identified the Twitter user who wrongly accused some charities of appropriating the money and sending it to North Korea. The person later apologized for the tweet, deleted it, and made his account private, but harsh criticism against the “crass attempt” to make use of the natural disaster and its victims to attack certain organizations lingered. In the same month, a group of online publishers and news media including Mainichi Newspaper and Buzzfeed Japan announced that it will establish an association of online media to propose industry guidelines to improve the standards and practices of online publishing in June this year.

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    Masato Kajimoto

    Masato Kajimoto, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of practice at the Journalism & Media Studies Centre, the University of Hong Kong, and the founder of the  Asia Pacific Digital Citizens Network. He specializes in news literacy education and misinformation ecosystem research in Asia.

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