By Helani Galpaya and Ramathi Bandaranayake*
Having stagnated for years, the percentage of South Asians who have used the internet has finally reached 50 per cent. In South Asia internet use is synonymous with social media, with most users spending all their time on chat applications. Many of these users have low digital skills and are often passive consumers in a digital world that attempts to influence, and at times misinform and manipulate, them.
Another smaller group are more active consumers, working digitally on global remote-work platforms and earning much-needed income. But even their labour can be an unwitting participant in these manipulation efforts.
Like other regions, South and Southeast Asia have seen a growing debate about ‘information disorder’, a term including misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and hate speech. This is not a new problem. False and hateful content has long been spread by governments, individuals, special interest groups and other entities through non-digital means. But digital technologies enable a higher volume of information to spread faster and with greater reach.
Information disorder can be spread by actors with different motivations. In the political arena, organised online disinformation campaigns such as ‘IT cells’ in India, ‘troll factories’ in the Philippines, ‘buzzers’ in Indonesia and ‘cyber troops’ in Malaysia seek to influence electoral and other political outcomes. These campaigns can also cross borders. A 2020 EU Disinfo Lab report described an operation they dubbed ‘Indian chronicles’, which ‘resurrected dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs’ as part of an attempt to undermine Pakistan internationally.
Likewise, Doublethink Lab in Taiwan observed operations based in China and Taiwan pushing narratives such as ‘democracy is a failure’ targeting Taiwan’s 2020 general elections. Hate speech against ethnic minorities also spreads online. Serious anti-Muslim sentiment online was documented in Myanmar as the conflict in Rakhine grew in 2017.
The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered the further spread of misinformation, including fake cures. In India, herbal remedies have been promoted, without evidence, as ‘cures’ for COVID-19. Certain ethnic and religious groups have been scapegoated as ‘spreaders’ of the virus, including Muslims in India.
There is also a worrying intersection of digital labour with the production of disinformation. Online job boards are being used to recruit digital workers to take part in information manipulation campaigns. In Pakistan, actors and voice-over artists were hired to praise Pakistan, criticise India and commend the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor on Facebook. One freelancer who was hired via Fiverr stated she was unaware that her face had been used in propaganda. Similar phenomena have been studied in the Philippines, where digital influencers, participating in disinformation campaigns cite financial motivation to be part of the aspirational middle class as a cause of their participation.
Censorious political environments pose challenges, as fact checkers who point out government officials’ factual errors are slandered. Governments also weaponise fact-checking. In Pakistan, pro-government ‘fact-checkers’ have maligned the reporting of journalists who criticise the government’s ‘fake news’ and harass the journalists online. Governments have seized on the need to fight ‘fake news’ to pass new restrictive legislation. Two prominent examples are Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 and Malaysia’s since-repealed Anti-Fake News Act of 2018.
But defamation laws, cybersecurity and tech laws, media laws, laws to deal with COVID-19 and even colonial-era sedition laws are also used to regulate speech. For example, Section 66D of Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law states that ‘extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network’ can be penalised by up to three years in prison. The law has been used to target those who criticise government figures.
Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act of 2018 says that ‘if any person, by means of digital medium, makes or instigates to make any propaganda or campaign against the liberation war of Bangladesh, spirit of liberation war, father of the nation, national anthem or national flag, then such act of the person shall be an offence’. Critics of the government’s COVID-19 response have found themselves detained under this law, with one dying in jail pending trial. These laws have been criticised for their vague definitions of offences, harsh penalties and politically motivated applications, which provide governments with easy means of silencing dissent.
Information disorder undermines democratic processes, encourages violence against ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups and obstructs responses to emergencies such as disease outbreaks. But heavy-handed and bad faith responses from governments across Asia are not the solution. We cannot legislate our way out of the information disorder.
The question remains, then, what should be done about it.
Independent, third-party fact-checking is increasingly seen as a popular solution. Social media platforms such as Facebook work with country-specific fact-checking outfits to moderate content, helping the platform access local language content and contexts. Posts identified as possibly misleading or fake are downgraded by the platform algorithms to reduce the spread.
Other research shows that posts that are fact-checked are shared less by users. But the sheer volume of content to be checked makes it difficult to keep up. Few fact-checkers are able to do so at scale, due to lack of artificial intelligence and other tools that work in an Asian context and support Asian language data screening. The lack of credible sources to fact-check against also poses challenges. Complaints channels can also be weaponised to shut down the social media accounts of journalists and media organisations perceived to be critical of governments.
Teaching digital and media literacy — including through formal school and university curricula or community-based grassroots level programs — is another countermeasure. Similar measures undertaken in countries such as Finland, which teaches critical thinking on misinformation and digital literacy in schools, show promising results.
Digital literacy initiatives in Asia are taking place at a smaller scale and are rarely implemented without formal and long-term education systems. This is important since evidence suggests countries with better quality education also have higher media freedom. Even for the digital literacy programs that are implemented, little is known about their impact. This is an important area for future research if everyone is to be a fact-checker and be an active consumer of information.
Finding the right balance between freedom of expression, the growth of fake news and the right to privacy will be key to Asia’s digital future.
*About the authors:
- Helani Galpaya is CEO of LIRNEasia, a pro-poor, pro-market think tank working on digital and other infrastructure policy issues across the emerging Asia Pacific.
- Ramathi Bandaranayake is a Senior Researcher at LIRNEasia, working on the ethics of technology and science.