Albeit propaganda and the spread of misinformation are not a new phenomenon, there is no denying that social media algorithms have played a significant role in amplifying their reach. What is unique about the situation of fake news in Southeast Asia, is that fake news and disinformation are operating within an environment where existing laws already inhibit freedom of speech and expression. In Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore, where there are existing laws that curtail freedom of expression, social media has become the new avenue for government to exercise control over the people’s right to free speech.
In South Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, disinformation, fake news and hateful rhetoric found online have had serious consequences for public opinion. Fake new reports and media hoaxes circulating in Indonesia for example, are being credited with the downfall of candidates in their gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been quoted as saying fake news has been “fanning conflict” over the Rohingya crisis.
There is consensus that it is the political establishment that has actively mobilized and used supporters to manipulate public opinion to their favor, through fake news, and also through hyper-partisan propaganda. These strategies have been in place even before the rise of Facebook as a platform, when fake comments and forum sections of websites are targeted to promote partisan, mainly pro-government content, or in the case of opposition blogs, counter content. The rise of Facebook has only made this phenomenon more virulent. – Ed Legaspi, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
The sad reality is that for many countries in the Southeast Asia region, the fight against fake news is linked to the fight for greater freedom of expression, and therefore democracy. Presently, it would seem that even the most fundamental democratic freedoms are making a retreat from the region.