A key reason why some pro-Russia disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine have found resonance in Southeast Asia is that they have successfully tapped into latent anti-U.S. and anti-West sentiments.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked intense public debate in Southeast Asia. Within the region, there are worries that segments of society have bought into the Kremlin’s online disinformation campaigns aimed at swaying sentiments on the war and justifying Russia’s invasion.
One social media channel that has been particularly effective in amplifying Russia’s message has been Twitter, where official accounts held by Russian embassies and ministries have been found to coordinate posts and retweets to maximise the spread of disinformation. To get a sense of the spread and saliency of Russian disinformation in Southeast Asia, this article tracked two of Russia’s key disinformation narratives amongst English language tweets in two countries – Singapore and the Philippines – where English is spoken widely.
It should also be noted that both countries (together with Indonesia and Brunei) were particularly strong in their condemnation of the invasion compared to their ASEAN counterparts. Singapore, in particular, also effected financial sanctions and export controls on Russia. This could have caused them to be targets in an information campaign, whether they are officially sanctioned or not.
The first narrative involves the Donbas region and the portrayal of Ukrainian authorities as neo-Nazis bent on subjecting Russian-speaking residents to constant military onslaught and genocide. The second involves the assertion that the U.S. operates a network of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Both of these debunked narratives, utilised as justifications for the invasion, have been widely propagated by Russia’s official Twitter accounts – two examples are appended below. While there are many other pro-Russia narratives out there, for the purposes of this article, only these two were analysed as they appear to be the most prominent narratives providing Russia with the strongest grounds for invasion.
Between the invasion on 24 February and 18 March, the Twitter-sphere in Singapore and the Philippines saw an almost constant stream of tweets that carried these two narratives. During this period, the dissemination of tweets that carried these two narratives was of similar magnitudes in both countries, relative to their respective Twitter user bases. In Singapore, for every million Twitter users, there were 148 of these tweets while in the Philippines, the figure was 147.
Another indicator, the proportion of retweets, is also roughly the same between the two countries. Retweets are of particular interest as it is often the main node through which disinformation on Twitter spreads, as users do not have to write original tweets and can simply amplify an existing tweet from another account. A trendline showing the spread of these tweets during this time period indicates close similarities in the patterns of dissemination over time. The peak of the tweets occurred on 9 March. It should be noted that Singapore announced sanctions on Russia on 5 March; the Philippines expressed ‘explicit condemnation’ of the invasion on 28 February.
These similarities raise questions as to whether there have been coordinated efforts to amplify Russian disinformation amongst Twitter users in these two countries. While this might be a possibility, it will be difficult to assert so without concrete intelligence about the activities of Russia’s cyber actors.
While governments look into the prospect of hostile information campaigns against their respective countries, it is also important to consider the deeper drivers behind why such campaigns find resonance within certain segments of society. A stark similarity amongst the tweets in Singapore and the Philippines is its heavy focus on framing the narratives around anti-American sentiments. Amongst the 1,961 tweets identified from Singapore- and Philippines-based Twitter accounts, 838 of them mentioned the terms ‘US’, ‘USA’, ‘America’ or ‘American’. A substantial majority of these tweets carried anti-American sentiments. Analysts have highlighted how Russia seems to have masterfully curated their narratives to tap on ‘existing anti-Western messages’ that have appeal in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The goal here is to convert this reservoir of anti-Western sentiment into goodwill and support for Russia.
Analysts have highlighted how Russia seems to have masterfully curated their narratives to tap on ‘existing anti-Western messages’ that have appeal in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The goal here is to convert this reservoir of anti-Western sentiment into goodwill and support for Russia.
In Southeast Asia, there are certainly segments of society where latent antagonism towards the U.S. exists and utilising such messages can certainly move the needle in swaying hearts and minds towards Russia. According to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, a significant minority of Singaporeans and Filipinos — 21 per cent and 31 per cent respectively — expressed no or little confidence that the U.S. would do the ‘right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security and prosperity.
Claims that the Obama administration orchestrated a coup that led to the 2014 downfall of the pro-Russia government in Ukraine or that the US supports the persecution of Russian-speaking Ukrainians have absolutely no grounds in reality. However, when such messages are exposed to people who already have less than favourable views of the West, they may be more inclined to believe them because of motivated reasoning or confirmation bias. These two terms describe the well-studied psychological tendency of people to lend credence to information that supports one’s prior beliefs or worldviews.
While we may be inclined to see those buying into such falsehoods as a fringe and vocal minority, there still needs to be a wariness about the dangers of exposure to disinformation over a longer period of time. Constant exposure to such messages raises the potential for this fringe minority to grow. In the U.S., for example, a recent survey revealed that 16 per cent of Americans believe in QAnon conspiracy theories. (QAnon believers allege that an elite group of paedophiles conspired against Donald Trump during his term in office and were once thought of as a fringe group.) Peer-reviewed research has shown that repeated exposure to online falsehoods, even if they have low levels of credibility, will increase perceptions of veracity over time.
As Southeast Asia increasingly becomes a battleground for rivalry between major powers, there needs to be a heightened sensitivity about the role that disinformation plays in these contests. Disinformation threatens to obfuscate nuances in these complex geopolitical issues, making it difficult to have discussions without reducing them to simplistic ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ binaries. There is no panacea to combat disinformation, other than using authoritative sources, checking the origins of social media users that propagate disinformation, and circumspection in amplifying dubious content.
Darren Cheong is Research Associate with the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.