Why the Issue of Fake News is More Complicated in Southeast Asia

Can the law finally snuff out ‘fake news’ in the region? Victims of disinformation are sceptical.
Tuesday 23 October 2018
‘Sharing a lie makes you a liar’, says an advertisement campaign to curb the spread of fake news in Malaysia. Unfortunately, many netizens cannot differentiate falsehoods from legitimate news. Photo: Getty Images

On a Sunday in September last year, a day-long art shindig was in full swing at the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) building in Jakarta. Come nightfall, however, participants found themselves cowering behind a barricade made with all the chairs they could find. “The mob outside were throwing stones, shouting terrible threats, and they tried to force their way into the building. We hid inside. Both exits were blocked, so we were essentially trapped. We were in there for hours, the room became stuffier and two people had an asthma attack,” Asfinawati, chairperson of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation, recounts her experience to UNRESERVED.

The cops fired tear gas and water cannons to quell the riot. Five police officers were injured. The trigger, it turns out, was a rumour circulating among netizens that communists – a bogeyman alive and well in Indonesia since the anti-communist purge in 1965 – were regrouping in the premises.

Asfinawati clarified that what they held was an academic discussion about what happened in 1965. This was followed by the music performance event, as confirmed by the police at the scene.

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A mob descended upon the Legal Aid Institute’s building after rumours circulated that communists held a meeting in it. Photo: Getty Images

In a press release, LBH wrote that “clearly hoaxes or false news have been broadcasted… the instructions for attacking LBH [were] done systematically and extensively.” No fatality was reported, fortunately. The same cannot be said for the 25 victims lynched in India due to fake accusations circulating on the messaging service WhatsApp. Meanwhile, fake news on Facebook is said to have stoked ethnic cleansing tragedies in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

With lives at stake, it is understandable that governments around the world are cracking down on fake news. Malaysia led the crusade by passing the world’s first Anti-Fake News Act in April. Other Southeast Asian administrations like Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand are equally keen on regulating online falsehoods – they are either enforcing existing laws or mulling tighter ones.

But the zeal to regulate fake news, to many, is just as problematic as fake news itself. Take the Anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia. It was criticised by the Malaysian Bar Council for being “far too wide”. The Act imposes hefty fines and jail time on “any person who, by any means, creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news”.

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A vandalised campaign poster for Barisan Nasional candidate for Putrajaya, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Sceptics narrowed their eyes, not just at the bill’s hasty passing a month before the general elections, but also at its coverage of foreign press – the then ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), had repeatedly called international reports on its 1MDB financial scandal as fake news. This evoked suspicion that such laws are a front to silence criticisms and media scrutiny on the government.

The BN administration has since been replaced by a new Pakatan Harapan government, which proposed to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act in August, though the proposal was rejected by the Dewan Negara in September. But a question remains: would the law have actually protected victims of online falsehoods?

For Rizal Rozhan, a Malaysian advocacy and capacity-building officer of women’s rights organisation Empower, the answer is no. Rizal had been at the frontline of battling disinformation and mud-slinging against the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO), of which Empower is the co-secretariat. UPR refers to the Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism by the United Nations to improve human rights treatment in its member states.

In 2013, an online smear campaign was launched by religious and nationalist groups against COMANGO – the coalition’s push for equal human rights for all, including the LGBT community, appeared to have rubbed them up the wrong way. To this day, according to Rizal, COMANGO is still unable to shed its tarnished public image. The purpose of the UPR is to improve the human rights situation through collaboration between NGOs and the government, but many officials avoid COMANGO like a plague.

They have also lost about 30 member NGOs since 2013. “If the Anti-Fake News Act had been available back in 2013, we may have tried to use it to stop those spreading falsehoods about us; spent three years going to court, only to stifle them for two days. Weighing the costs and benefits, it doesn’t seem viable,” Rizal tells UNRESERVED.

Mastura M. Rashid, communications and outreach manager of Empower, concurs. She points out that the smear campaign on COMANGO is a “concerted effort” by a huge machinery of online armies posting and sharing the disinformation on social media and blogs. In other words, nabbing one source of falsehood is like cutting off a head of the Hydra – for every one that falls, two would emerge to take its place.

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An army of pinocchios can turn the truth against you. Photo: Getty Images

Laws may not be great at stopping individual hoaxers. But for Ryan Lim, principal consultant and founding partner of QED Consulting in Singapore, it can ensure tech giants commit serious efforts and resources to curb the spread of fake information. He argues that social media services that have reached critical mass usage should be considered “utility”.

“Any utility has to be governed by the state, just like water, energy and telecommunications. There is a certain amount of responsibilities these organisations have to abide by for [the public good],” reasons the digital strategy consultant. “An enacted law will ensure that commercial tech firms comply, and feel the weight of the responsibilities that come with owning a utility. Purely relying on goodwill is never enough. As we’ve seen, the [interest of the] state and private enterprises are not always in the same direction.”

Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor in global digital media at the University of Massachusetts, has a different take. He tells UNRESERVED that having tech companies censor content runs against free speech protection and “accord too much power to private corporations”.

“Blaming Big Tech for all the problems of fake news and disinformation is a form of easy scapegoating. It is an act of refusal to [examine] how the media and creative industries and politicians have been complicit to our fake news problem,” says Ong, who co-authored a report on the fake news network in the Philippines with Dr Jason Vincent Cabañes, a media professor at the University of Leeds. A better option, he says, is to mandate politicians to disclose the amount and content they are spending for digital campaigns.

Fake news mills’ biggest clients are often the governments trying to regulate it. After all, ‘fake news’ is often used interchangeably with ‘disinformation’ – a word which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “false information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organisation to a rival power or the media.

”The report by Ong and Cabañes highlights the widespread use of ‘click armies’ among political parties in the Philippines. It also notes that pundits credited the unforeseen election victory of the archipelago’s own president, Rodrigo Duterte, to the “vociferous sharing of fake news and amplification of hate speech” by his ‘troll armies’.

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Philippine President Duterte launched a nationwide war on crime and drugs after winning the presidential elections in July 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Online falsehoods, the report reveals, are churned out by an organised and industrial-scale network of marketing and public relations (PR) strategists, digital influencers, fake social media account operators and paid ‘journalists’. “Many justify their use of fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter as a mere extension of the longstanding ad and PR practice of using spin.

Ordinary citizens have long tolerated deception work from ‘legitimate sources’ – corporate brands, celebrities, journalistic and oligarchic media,” writes Ong and Cabañes. The disinformation network is not unique to the Philippines.

Further south, Indonesian law enforcement believes that a local syndicate known as ‘Saracen’, which reportedly spread untruths at US$5,550 per campaign, is run by an unnamed politician. In Malaysia, a repentant falsehood artist known as Ratu Naga (Queen of Dragons), admitted to Wired UK that she built a network of 80 online mercenaries to fix elections in favour of the BN government. The blogger, whose real name is Syarul Ema Rena Abu Samah, details how they amplified falsehoods like fake quotes to undermine the opposition with tacit blessing from BN.

To veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas, who also runs a fact-checking website Vera Files in the Philippines, it is disingenuous for governments to regulate fake news. “We have made our position [clear] that the number one source of disinformation is the government,” Tordesillas tells UNRESERVED.

She cites the example of Duterte claiming that there are 4 million drug addicts in the country during his ‘war on drugs’ that has killed tens of thousands. The Dangerous Drugs Board, however, put the drug user figure at 1.8 million and did not classify them as addicts. The board’s chief was eventually fired because, as Duterte told reporters, “you don’t contradict your own government”. But not contradicting the government is partly what sped up the growth of the fake news tumour.

Zurairi AR, an assistant news editor and columnist for the Malaysian news portal Malay Mail, tells UNRESERVED that legitimate mainstream media outlets in the country were once a trusted source of news. However, under the stifling ownership of the BN coalition parties, many became propaganda tools. People began doubting their reports. In the meantime, independent news platforms like Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider started popping up on the Internet – a relatively unconstrained space that allows them to carry out reporting with impartiality and accuracy.

Unfortunately, the government began accusing them of propagating slander and being anti-establishment. “There is a disconnect between trust and accuracy,” says Zurairi. “The publications that people thought they could trust were peddling untruths, and the outlets that were reporting the truth were painted as untrustworthy.” This wrecks the cultivation of media literacy. He observes that many Malaysians cannot tell apart legitimate media outlets from personal blogs or content farms, or even news reports from opinion pieces.

To disarm fake news, journalists need access to information for accurate reporting and verification of rumours. But he notes that the change in administration did not dislodge the roadblocks in communication – many reporters still find it hard to reach government departments for comments or data.

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WhatsApp took out a full back page advertisement in an Indian newspaper to counter fake information that has sparked mob lynching across the country. Photo: Getty Images

Regulating fake news is like performing surgery with a hammer. You end up with more broken pieces than you started with. Worse, the real problem remains unsolved. Mihir Sharma, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, believes it is ludicrous for the Indian government to blame WhatsApp for the mob killings – it does not address the longstanding issue that “we Indians were lynching each other long before WhatsApp came along…”

“How can the government ask WhatsApp to control mobs when those convicted of lynching Muslims have been greeted, garlanded and fed sweets by some of the most progressive and cosmopolitan members of [Indian Prime Minister] Modi’s council of ministers?” he writes.

Asfinawati, the lawyer who endured a harrowing night under siege by a fake news-fuelled mob, also does not support regulating disinformation. To her, the law cannot neutralise the actual threat – gullibility caused by a lack of information. According to Asfinawati, the less people know about a subject matter, the easier they fall for fake news. The taboo on discussing communism in Indonesia, for example, allowed anti-communist fears to permeate. Rumours about her organisation harbouring communists played on that fear, which ultimately flared into violence. “I believe that fake news cannot be fought by limiting speech,” she says. “It should be fought with more speech, more information.”

Related: In Malaysia, You Can Still Be Charged for Spreading ‘Fake News’