In the online battlefield, companies, politicians and media outlets are trying to shape how we think. For media consumers and journalists alike, the keys to a strong defence lie in media literacy and discernment.
‘People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.’ This quotation from a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler, written in the 1940s by the United States’ Office of Strategic Services, has particular relevance today. We are living in an age of acute information disorder, in which the tools of computational propaganda are being deployed by a host of vested interests to shape our thinking and influence our decisions. The amplification of contrived narratives and falsehoods by armies of bots and cybertroopers, aided by the recommendation algorithms of social media platforms, is wreaking havoc on a normal person’s ability to discern truth from lies.
According to the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, global concerns about online misinformation have remained high. The percentage of global respondents who indicated concerns about distinguishing between true or fake news online increased from 56 per cent to 58 per cent. Covid-19 and politics have been cited as the top two issues over which respondents have observed the most occurrences of misinformation. Within Southeast Asia, the 2020 report indicated that 65 per cent of respondents in Singapore said they were concerned about what was real or fake on the Internet, compared to 63 per cent who felt the same in Malaysia, and 57 per cent in the Philippines.
… when it comes to mounting a successful propaganda campaign, it is not just about repeating a big lie many times. Nor is it simply about exploiting low levels of education and media literacy. It is largely also about the ability to tap into the underlying political, social and economic cleavages and fault lines at play in a society.
In Southeast Asia, the business of online propaganda and disinformation is a thriving industry. Their techniques have been employed to great effect in political elections. In the Philippines, it is a common practice for political parties to use paid influencers who operate numerous fake accounts to tailor political messages that go viral. Cybertroopers are widely thought to have helped propel President Rodrigo Duterte to power. Similarly, in Indonesia, an army of social media campaign volunteers were instrumental in elevating Joko Widodo from relative obscurity as the mayor of Solo to the governorship of Jakarta and subsequently, the Indonesian presidency. In Malaysia, former prime minister Najib Razak’s immense popularity on social media and political longevity have been supported by his savvy social media campaign team and the successful mobilisation of a loyal fan base.
What the information ecosystems in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have in common is that they all exist in strong personality-centric political cultures. The huge social divide and endemic corruption in these countries have also engendered deep distrust in elites, politicians, government institutions and, indeed, mainstream media. These factors explain, in part, why ‘outsiders’ who appear anti-establishment and have the popular touch are frequently voted into power — often notwithstanding their own controversial and scandal-tainted backgrounds. They also help explain why, when it comes to mounting a successful propaganda campaign, it is not just about repeating a big lie many times. Nor is it simply about exploiting low levels of education and media literacy. It is largely also about the ability to tap into the underlying political, social and economic cleavages and fault lines at play in a society.
In his insightful analysis into how best to mitigate the public’s susceptibility to disinformation campaigns, De La Salle University professor Jason Cabanes points out that the purveyors of disinformation are highly adept at tapping into their target audiences’ ‘deep stories’ that resonate with strongly held beliefs, felt needs and experiences. He argues that counter disinformation strategies that over-emphasise fact-checking are inadequate and potentially counter-productive – especially if the messages come across as elitist and condescending. Instead, counter-disinformation strategies need to engage with the same narratives that resonate deeply with the public. In other words, rather than ‘talking down’ to the public and talking past them, those who seek to counter disinformation need to empathise more in order to communicate more persuasively.
And in all this, journalists and editors in mainstream media have important responsibilities to uphold. Ethnographic research conducted by scholars into the tactics of Indonesian cybertroopers has highlighted how mainstream media outlets have been complicit in reporting as facts the content manufactured by cybertroopers, without adequate verification. In so doing, they amplify and legitimise falsehoods aimed at swaying public opinion. For instance, in their research into the organisation and funding of social media propaganda (published in the October-December edition of Inside Indonesia), Wijayanto and Ward Berenschot reported that cybertroopers they interviewed had admitted to manufacturing falsehoods to discredit Agus Yudhoyono, the sitting chair of the Democrat Party. Cybertroopers were also believed to have been behind the narrative that the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) had been infiltrated by radical Muslims. These narratives were subsequently reported in mainstream media.
On this score, the special section on social media in NPR’s ethics handbook is a useful reminder to journalists that reporting on content on social media requires the same exercise of due diligence as reporting in other environments. Care must be taken to attribute and verify information cited on social media. Mainstream media journalists are under pressure to turn around their stories under ever-tightening deadlines. But in order to retain the trust of their readership, they need to continue to uphold journalistic standards stringently.
For the ordinary consumer of social media content, the need for greater discernment and media literacy has never been more urgent. Social media consumers need to be more critical and learn to read between the lines and question the provenance of information, their motivations and vested interests. There is also a need to recognise the indicators of trolling activity. One should ask: has the message or messenger sought to distract attention from a legitimate issue by carrying out personal attacks to undermine the credibility of a perceived opponent? Have they thrown ‘curve balls’ to shift the original focus of an issue being discussed? Have they sowed fear and division? And most disconcertingly, have messages and messengers challenged or triggered deeply held convictions about identity and values – to the point where one feels incited to react and respond?
Ultimately, all of us must become more aware that the purveyors of propaganda are pervasive. Well-resourced companies, politicians, media organisations and governmental institutions are seeking to shape how we think, to earn our dollars or win our votes. Not all are trustworthy.
Lee Sue-Ann is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She also directs the Media, Technology and Society Programme at the same institute.