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

Indeed, rumors and disinformation have become part and parcel of social and political tensions in Asia. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 on the basis of a misleading depiction of the country as a “narco-state.” According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the prevalence of drug use in the Philippines is actually lower than the global average. However, Duterte’s false narco-state message was used to justify more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings, earning him immense popularity – and notoriety. Social media is central to winning the hearts and minds of voters. An army of pro-Duterte online commentators, who include celebrities and popular bloggers, consistently argue that the mainstream media are biased and unfair to him. This is not unlike alternative news sites in the United States. Social media has taken over the traditional media’s agenda-setting power.

Fake news also aggravated an emotionally charged gubernatorial election in Jakarta this year when the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, was targeted for his race and religion. A Chinese-Indonesian Christian, Basuki fell victim to a doctored video in which he appeared to criticize those who use the Koran to denounce the role of non-Muslims in positions of leadership in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. In essence, 13 seconds of talking was taken, out of context, from a 100-minute speech. He was charged with blasphemy and hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out on the streets of Jakarta in a series of protests to demand his ouster and arrest. Anti-Ahok campaigners also circulated a series of Internet memes linking Basuki to the threat of an invasion by China and a revival of communism in Indonesia. In this most social of countries, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are the conduits for Indonesians to share misinformation that can inflame ethnic and religious tensions. In mid-April, Basuki lost his bid for re-election to a Muslim candidate, and in May he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.

Fake news is equally rampant on the Chinese Internet. In 2011, Beijing supermarkets ran out of salt after false rumors circulated that iodized salt can guard against radiation poisoning amid Japan’s Fukushima nuclear emergency. Ironically, the current debate over fake news shows the foresight of China, which recognized problems with misinformation on social media early on. “China’s crackdown on online rumors a few years ago was harshly condemned by the West,” wrote the Global Times, an official government mouthpiece. “Things changed really quickly, as the anxiety over Internet management has been transferred to the US.” In 2015, China arrested nearly 200 people for spreading false information about stock market turmoil and a massive explosion in the city of Tianjin. In July 2016, the Cyberspace Administration of China issued a statement saying that it was “forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts.” While China claims that this is necessary for social order, it is really about nipping signs of unrest in the bud before they fester into a political movement.

Post-truth politics is possible through lack of trust in institutions and social safeguards. This is not unique to Asia, but is true across the world. In the years since the global financial crisis of 2008, the Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked a consistent decline of trust around the world in mainstream institutions such as the media and government. This can most obviously be seen in the election of Donald J Trump and Britain’s Brexit vote. In 2017, 19 of the 28 countries surveyed are now classified as distrusting nations. To be sure, media in Asia-Pacific countries are more trusted than their Western counterparts. This might be due to a different understanding of the role of media in Asia, where nation-building and consensus-forming are viewed as more important than free expression and checking government power. However, there is a limit to this. There are big drops in trust of the media in Singapore due to their muted coverage of public service failings. In Hong Kong, social media led the coverage and debate on pro-democracy protests because traditional media are seen as biased. This explains why the mainstream media are being circumvented by social media and why people prefer “authentic” politicians who seem genuine and approachable, but not necessarily truthful.

This is aggravated by the phenomenon in the online world known as the “filter bubble,” a concept popularized by Internet activist Eli Pariser, in which technology platforms offer personalized content according to the preferences and behaviors of users. The result is that netizens gather in what amounts to echo chambers, so that one exchanges information only to reinforce rather than debate viewpoints. As Lippmann observed nearly 100 years ago: “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.” This results in the formation of groups that do not understand each other and find themselves in conflict based on misconceptions. This is the perfect medium for fake news and fringe beliefs to establish themselves and spread.

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