Melinda Martinus proposes the threats of fake news to be mainstreamed into ASEAN regional security concerns.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
Fake news is a thorny issue. The problem is amplified with social networks globalising digital communications. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that with more people relying on online platforms for social interaction, false information spreads more rapidly on social networks than real news does. For instance, fake news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted and can reach viewers ten to twenty times faster than facts on Twitter.
In Southeast Asia, the rise in digitalisation has grown in tandem with the proliferation of fake news. Today the region is home to millions of avid smartphone users. It is estimated that 68% of the region’s total population are social media users and young people between 16-24 years old are spending an average of more than 10 hours per day on the internet. This makes the region a perfect breeding ground for fake news.
Fake News Landscape in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia’s disinformation landscape is extremely complex. With relatively low digital literacy (particularly in least developed countries, among rural populations, and the elderly), limited freedom of individual expression, lack of capacity to govern the rise of global technology giants (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, etc), the proliferation of fake news has pushed regional governments to rethink the relationship between technology, society, media, and government.
Cybertroopers, whose objectives are to disrupt the electoral process, if not, manipulate public opinion for a certain candidate’s gain, have become a threat across the region. In the Philippines, Facebook helped spread misinformation that portrayed Ferdinand Marcos Jr in a favourable light in the recent Philippines Presidential election. In Myanmar, internet trolls affiliated with the Tatmadaw have used social media to manipulate opinion and justify the coup in February 2021. In Indonesia, online buzzers have been hired by political candidates eyeing the 2024 general election, and Jokowi’s ardent keyboard warriors have also propagated the narrative of the need to extend his presidential term.
The spread of COVID-19 has also exposed the rise of disinformation beyond politics and electoral domains. For instance, racism and hatred toward Chinese minorities quickly spread when the region started to see rising cases of the so-called ‘Chinese’ virus in early 2020. According to the Centre, a policy think tank based in Malaysia, COVID-19 had escalated racial banters on social media among ethnic groups in Malaysia and further deepened the racial divide between the Malay-Muslim majority and the non-Malay minority.
A study from Singapore’s National Centre of Infectious Disease (NCID), meanwhile, shows that six in ten people in Singapore received fake COVID-19 news from social media during the early COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. It is also worth noting that fake news might also pave the way for more complex problems such as digital scams and frauds. Syndicates for fraud profiteering have been proven difficult to nab. Even Singapore — arguably the most well-adapted nation to digital transformation in the region — is not immune to this problem. The country has seen a substantial rise in scams. A total of 14,349 scam cases were reported in the mid of 2022 in the city-state, almost double the number registered in the same period last year.
While it is true that fake news in the region has been mainly a domestic issue, the war in Ukraine has brought up a new conversation about foreign actors’ influence in manipulating global opinions. Variegated opinions about the underlying cause of the war have been showing up on social media driven by pro-Russian narratives (mainly driven by the anti-Americans, anti-NATO, anti-westernisation, pro-China sympathisers) and pro-Ukraine nationalism (primarily galvanised by western-educated elites and pro-democracy staunch supporters).
A study published on Fulcrum, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s commentary blogpost found that Russia’s cyber actors proactively disseminated the stories to justify the attack in Ukraine. These included narratives about Ukrainian authorities exterminating the Russian-speaking civilian population in Donbas and the claim that the United States and allies operating a network of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. These narratives carried on Twitter were disseminated extensively in Singapore and the Philippines – two countries that were particularly strong in their condemnation of the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine – aiming to win sympathy among these countries’ citizens.
While social media and the debate over the Russia-Ukraine War have opened up an avenue for an increased engagement on foreign affairs by Southeast Asians, this could also mean greater polarisation of ideologies. On the global stage, ASEAN has already struggled to balance major powers’ influence in the region. Foreign policy elites frequently need to walk the tightrope to uphold ASEAN centrality, and not to be dictated by two dominant hegemons of China/Russia and the US with its allies. Now with externally-influenced disinformation infiltrating its society and attempting to galvanise support for a particular major power’s gain, ASEAN must be more attentive to the implications that disinformation could bring for the region’s stability.
What can ASEAN Do?
ASEAN governments have introduced various domestic legislative measures to curtail the spread of fake news to preserve national security, mainly through various types of fake news laws. Examples include the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in Singapore, the Anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia, the Anti-Fake News Decree in Vietnam, the Anti-Cybercrime Law in the Philippines, and the Internet Defamation Law in Indonesia. However, many critics have pointed out that these measures have been utilised by authorities to ratchet up state controls on the flow of information in public life. This could result in unintended collateral damage, namely the impairment of free speech of media and human rights in society.
Critics also raised concern about the impact on the digital transformation ecosystem in the region. Controlled measures are usually introduced abruptly without a public hearing and further disincentivises technology players. For instance, Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information frequently blocked access to digital platforms that do not comply with the country’s dynamically changing digital regulations, causing confusion amongst the public. Similarly, Vietnam has imposed new rules to for tech firms to store user data onshore to strengthen cybersecurity.
On the other hand, regional actions to help to address fake news remains to be seen. As the threats of fake news increase disseminated both by domestic constituents or by foreign actors, ASEAN needs to be more proactive in mitigating fake news storms in the region. There are some pathways that can be explored.
First, recognising fake news as a non-traditional regional security problem. Although the magnitude of security risks is not the same as territorial disputes and transboundary issues, disinformation can further deepen societal divisions. Fake news should be mainstreamed into various ASEAN meetings or mechanisms that deal with security issues. ASEAN governments, particularly defence and intelligence agencies should also enhance information exchange and share best practices for combating disinformation.
Second, in addressing fake news propagated by external powers, Individual ASEAN states should be fearless in articulating the concerns of misinformation in international fora involving major powers – similar to what US diplomats did when they found out that the Russian Intelligence Agency had helped spread misinformation about the US election in 2017 that paved the way for Donald Trump’s win. This is a way to exercise ASEAN agency and ensure that external’s interests will not strain domestic stability.
Finally, building open dialogue with civil society, media, and technology providers on acceptable behaviours in the digital space. This helps to establish cyber norms that will help ASEAN create a safe, open, and positive cyberspace for its people.
Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.