Post-truth politics and fake news in Asia
October-December 2017
By: Andy Yee

American journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1922 classic, “Public Opinion,” opened with a long quotation from Plato’s parable of the cave, the famous scene of cave dwellers who discern reality only as shadows flickering on the wall. As Lippmann wrote, we inhabit a cave of media misrepresentations and distortions of reality. Neither the press nor the public can discern the truth. Addressing the advent of mass media in the 20th century, this was one of the first expositions on the notion of fake news.

Fast-forward a century and our hyperconnected world faces an unprecedented scale and speed of information creation and transmission. The amount of data produced doubles almost every 12 months and is predicted soon to be doubling every 12 hours. In 2016, we produced as much information as in all of human history through to 2015. As a result, the fake news problem has evolved exponentially. Not only is there an explosion in the amount of information, our ability to alter and fabricate it has also increased significantly as sophisticated digital devices and tools are now available to the average netizen.

In 2013, the World Economic Forum identified a global risk from “digital wildfires,” in which the viral spread of misleading information can result in serious real-world consequences. For instance, the spread of unverified content can damage the reputation of politicians, companies or institutions. It can even undermine social stability by causing panic over security threats or outbreaks of disease. In 2011, disorder and looting broke out in London and other towns across England due to the spread of rumors on social media. The following year, a prominent retired politician, Lord McAlpine, fell victim to false accusations of child sexual abuse on Twitter. With the fake news stories during the US presidential election and the blatant misinformation accompanying Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, fake news has become a major concern. “Post-truth” – the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016 – has been increasingly used to describe a politics in which feelings trump facts.

Post-truth politics aren’t confined to the West. Asia’s vast connected populations provide fertile ground for fake news. The social media and messaging apps that are popular in Asia tend to be “walled gardens” with closed networks. Information spread via these networks can especially resonate since receivers are more likely to trust their circles of like-minded people. These networks command scale. On China’s WeChat, 4,112,500 articles are read every minute by its 864 million active users. LINE, an instant messaging app popular in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, reached 100 million users within 18 months of its release in 2011. KakaoTalk has 170 million users and is used by 93 percent of smartphone users in South Korea. And Facebook has 629 million active users across the Asia-Pacific, its fastest-growing region in the world. According to research by the Reuters Institute, a quarter of online users in Singapore and Malaysia say social media is their main source of news. This is far higher than in Britain (8 percent) or the United States (15 percent).

Fake news in Asia

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