Protesters walk past a mock gravestone that reads "RIP Freedom of Speech" during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 8, 2013. Photo: Reuters

In December, Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke out against false media reports that, he said, were destabilizing his government. “Slander, hatred and rude words on social media are increasingly troubling people,” he claimed in a tweet, presaging his government’s bid now underway to regulate against false reporting.

Widodo’s own presidential campaign, in 2014, was beset by specious rumors. Anonymously written articles, many of which appeared in the Obor Rakyat tabloid newspaper before being shared on social media, falsely stated that Widodo is ethnic Chinese and Catholic, potential political liabilities in the Muslim majority nation.

While “fake news” didn’t hamper Widodo’s electoral success, the same cannot be said for Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, who took over as Jakarta’s governor when Widodo became president. Despite being the front-runner in the capital’s gubernatorial election earlier this year, Ahok lost in a two-way run-off in April.

Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher, said that “fake news” was “hugely influential” in mobilizing Muslim voters against Purnama, who, unlike Widodo, is a Christian and ethnically Chinese. Turn Back Hoax, a crowd-sourced campaign which monitors “fake news” in Indonesia, found at least 1,900 false reports in the run-up to Jakarta’s election, many about the candidates’ race and religion.

Indonesian Muslims attend a rally calling for the arrest of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, who was accused of insulting the Koran, in Jakarta, Indonesia December 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

But one fake story sealed Purnama’s political fate. A doctored video of a speech he gave in September, which, when edited, appeared to show him admonishing Muslims for not voting for a non-Muslim, went viral online. The clip sparked mass protests and calls for Purnama to face charges of blasphemy, which were upheld by the courts and dogged his electoral bid. 

“Fake news” erupted as a political force during the US presidential election last year, when pundits noted the rise of fabricated and false news articles that were widely shared on social media, mostly to attack the Democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton. Since, media reports from across Southeast Asia have described a sharp rise in the number of websites offering overtly false information, as well as the public’s willingness to accept them as fact. 

In Cambodia, the government and opposition stand accused of spreading false information about each other, including recently leaked conversations about corrupt business dealings and politicians’ infidelity. In Malaysia, the government said false reports about the country’s political instability almost unravelled a US$7 billion deal with Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil firm in February.

Analysts believe the problem is fueled in part by lagging education standards in the region, including a lack of emphasis on inquiry. Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, told Asia Times that in Cambodia “the absorption of uncritical assumptions is the norm when schools don’t teach critical thinking.”

A Cambodian teacher (C) in a classroom at a private school in Phnom Penh on August 8, 2014. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy 

So who defines what is “fake” and what is “real”? In Vietnam and Laos, where the media is dominated by state-controlled publications and outlets, independent journalism can be readily labeled “fake” by censoring authorities.

Malaysia presents a more complicated case. Because the government has sought closer ties to Beijing in recent months, analysts assert there is a fine line between the opinion that China has too much influence and the assertion that China now pulls the government’s strings. While one intends to hold the government to account, the other plays on long-standing anti-Chinese sentiment to score political points. 

Fake news, of course, is not new. Rather it’s the propagation of a centuries-old tradition of rumor and misinformation now spread through 21st century mediums.

However, according to Ang Peng Hwa, professor of the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information in Singapore, a key difference is that the Internet now allows the “average person to make money” from spreading rumors and falsehoods. 

Australian Japanese Ai Takagi (R), and her Singaporean husband Yang Kaiheng (L), were both jailed in 2016 for publishing fake news that incited racial hatred. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

This is certainly true in the United States. Websites such as the National Report and ABCnews.com.co are thought to make thousands of dollars a week from advertising. Paul Horner, a prominent “fake news” writer, claimed to have earned US$10,000 a day in 2014 after one hoax report went viral, though his claim might also be fake.

In Southeast Asia, where Internet penetrations are lower, though fast rising, the profit-making capability of “fake news” is much lower than in countries like the United States, Hwa said. This is because of a smaller number of readers and, possibly, less advertising revenue for websites.

As a result, he said, there is not “much scope for a flourishing ‘fake news’ business” in the region. (Singapore jailed two bloggers who ran The Real Singapore website for inciting ethnic hatred through fake news.) Nonetheless, he said, because profits are low those who stand to gain the most from the spread of “fake news” are political parties.   

Many analysts believe the false news stories disseminated around Jakarta’s gubernatorial election were clearly the work of those invested in the victory of Purnama’s rival, Anies Baswedan. Many of the region’s leaders have cribbed from US president Donald Trump’s script by portraying critical media reports as “fake” and “false.”

That depends, of course, on which way the information flows. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly has an army of paid and unpaid online “trolls” who regularly post pro-government propaganda, not unlike what happens in Beijing or Moscow. He, like Trump, has referred to the New York Times, namely its critical reporting on his drug war, as “fake news.”

A journalist takes a selfie with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after a news conference in Manila, Philippines April 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro 

Senator Leila de Lima, who is currently in jail on what are widely viewed as politically motivated drug-related charges, has accused Duterte’s “lapdogs” of using “fake, alternative fact, news” to discredit her. This followed supposedly false reports that she had attempted suicide while in prison in March. 

The office of Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, put out a statement this month blaming “false news” for trying to create “political instability” and discredit her elected rule. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has come under scrutiny for her silence over claims the military has perpetrated “crimes against humanity” against the country’s minority Rohingya population.

Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak commentated that the “tide of fake and false news threatens to turn the truth into a purely subjective matter.” Many analysts viewed this as a jab at foreign media investigations into his alleged appropriation of over US$1 billion from a state investment fund, known as 1MDB, he created and oversaw.

A woman walks past newspapers reporting on the Philippines presidential election in Manila on May 10, 2016. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

While regional governments bid to blur the lines between genuine and fake journalism, there is a rising risk they use “fake news” claims to intensify press censorship and harass mainstream media outlets. Rights organizations had already warned of increased harassment of regional reporters before the alleged outbreak of “fake news.”

The trend has intensified with fast-growing online media that regional governments’ lack the licensing control they have long maintained over traditional print and broadcast media, regulatory leverage they have often used to pressure outlets into self-censorship. But fake news claims are giving governments’ added incentive to bring online outlets under the same controls.

“Southeast Asia is unfortunately not a good region in terms of media freedom and quality journalism,” researcher Harsono said. “I am afraid a crackdown on ‘fake news’ might hinder the growth of independent journalism.”

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