Public trust in mainstream news media is at an all-time low in several Southeast Asian countries. The fundamental challenge facing governments, journalists and consumers is how to reshape the media environment so that the trend can be reversed.
When it comes to public confidence, things do not seem to be looking up for the mainstream media in Southeast Asia. According to the 2022 edition of the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, public trust in news has remained generally low in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.
Some 93,432 people in 46 markets were surveyed. Of the five Southeast Asian markets, Malaysia had the lowest level of public trust in mainstream news (with 36 per cent of respondents indicating trust), followed by the Philippines (37 per cent), Indonesia (39 per cent) and Singapore (43 per cent). Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country polled where more than half of the respondents (53 per cent) said that they trusted most of the news most of the time.
Public trust in news outlets in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all fell compared to 2021, which dovetails with the overall finding that trust in the news has fallen in almost half of the 46 countries surveyed. On average, 42 per cent of respondents said that they trusted the mainstream media. The level of public trust has trended downward for some time and is “considerably lower than (that) in 2015”.
The report ascribed low trust in the mainstream media to two major factors: indifference to news and its value, and widespread perception of political and other biases in the press. Closer scrutiny of the information ecosystem of the five Southeast Asian countries polled shows that in some of them, political and corporate elite interests have increasingly dictated the media landscape. In others, relentless media crackdowns and censorship have instilled a climate of fear among journalists and induced boilerplate uniformity in news content across media outlets.
The Reuters report highlighted the pervasiveness of elite influence. Eight powerful media companies run by tycoons who use them for their corporate interests dominate Indonesia’s media landscape. Except for the independent outlet Malaysiakini, five major Malaysian entities operate news outlets closely linked to the political parties that have ruled the country for decades. This dynamic underscores the strong politics-media nexus in Malaysia, which has witnessed the increased consolidation of media ownership. Separately, the Reuters report noted Singapore Press Holdings’ plans to become a not-for-profit company to salvage advertising revenues by quoting some observers as viewing the move as a bellwether of “stronger government influence on the press in Singapore”.
Of the five Southeast Asian markets, Malaysia had the lowest level of public trust in mainstream news (with 36 per cent of respondents indicating trust), followed by the Philippines (37 per cent), Indonesia (39 per cent) and Singapore (43 per cent).
Growing media crackdowns and censorship have also permeated the media landscapes in the Philippines and Thailand. In the former, journalists, fact-checkers and their organisations have become targets of government-sanctioned attacks online and in real life, according to the report. The report noted that in Thailand, self-censorship was still “widely practiced in traditional mainstream media”, especially for coverage of the monarchy and the military. This trend extends to other Southeast Asian countries not polled by Reuters, namely Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, where public trust in the mainstream media is unlikely to fare any better, given their repressive settings.
In the five Southeast Asian countries surveyed, less than a third of respondents said that the media was immune to political and corporate sway. Such thinking is most salient in Malaysia, where 20 per cent of respondents said their media was free from “undue political influence” and 23 per cent said that it was not swayed by “undue business influence”. Their perceptions are in line with those of the broader international audience.
Against this backdrop, Internet-savvy readers, particularly young people, in all the five countries have turned to social media for news. But such alternative sources of information are by no means the antidote to state and corporate control of the mainstream media. A growing body of research has shown that social media is the very venue that many Southeast Asian governments have sought to weaponise and exploit as a valuable proxy for direct authoritarian control. Their methods are to either deploy online trolls to manipulate online discourse or to force tech companies to remove unflattering criticisms of the authorities.
All this portends a potentially bleak dynamic that leaves a region home to over 400 million Internet users susceptible to a deluge of fake news, disinformation and propaganda. It could also perpetuate a vicious cycle: the more people are exposed to fake news, the more they lose trust in the mainstream media. There is empirical support for this feedback loop in a 2020 report by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
One approach to restoring public trust in media would be to foster a media environment that puts public interests above all else, defined by authenticity, relatability and objectivity. A more trustworthy press and a higher level of media literacy are all the more crucial at a time when governments across Southeast Asia have harped on the urgency to stem the onslaught of fake news and misinformation.
The current dismal state of public trust in mainstream media merits a clarion call for change from all parties involved, from politicians to news outlets. The million dollar question, however, is how to start the process and who would do the hard work. Granted, it is expensive to produce good journalism and cheap to churn out fake news and misinformation. But it is high time political and corporate deep pockets were steered towards resuscitating high-quality, independent and investigative journalism in the region instead of social media propaganda. In this context, Indonesia, where there is growing evidence of the political and economic elites bankrolling cyber troops to manipulate public opinion, could perhaps take the lead in stopping the tide of false media narratives.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Associate Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.