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

Tackling the problem

To address the fake news problem, Lippmann proposed creating a professional “intelligence bureau” of “expert reporters” who would present an accurate picture of reality. The modern-day equivalents are sophisticated digital tools to help people assess the reliability of information circulating online. Researchers have developed fact-checking software and browser extensions such as LazyTruth and Truthy. Facebook has recently partnered with independent organizations from the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network to identify fast-spreading hoaxes and discourage users from sharing them. Many technology platforms also have self-correcting mechanisms that empower consumers of information to flag disputed content. Communities such as Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube usually quickly correct errors or remove content that breaches community standards.

But technical solutions only go so far. They might work less well in Asia where institutional capacity is weak. Independent organizations are unlikely to have the ability to act as verification intermediaries. Furthermore, these solutions rely on netizens having an ethos of responsibility and healthy skepticism toward information that might not be properly fact-checked. This is dependent on overcoming the barriers of awareness (the existence of misinformation) and digital literacy (the tools and skills needed to assess the reliability and biases of sources). There are opportunities for civil society, companies and other stakeholders to establish education programs to improve skills and awareness.

A bigger problem is that governments and politicians may have a vested interest in misinformation to hide the truth or push their own agendas. A case in point is Duterte as a key peddler of misinformation in the Philippines. On the other hand, attempts to stop fake news and online rumors could descend into censorship. This is especially relevant in the context of Asia, where democratic institutions are weak and immature. Freedom House, an American nongovernmental organization that advocates for democracy, says Internet freedom around the world has been on a declining trend and two-thirds of the world’s Internet users live in countries where criticism of the government is subject to censorship.

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