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

In a new development, social media platforms, communication apps and their users face greater threats than before as these tools grow in influence. In Thailand, military courts issued decades-long sentences in 2015 in cases involving Facebook posts deemed critical of the monarchy. In the same year, Bangladesh blocked WhatsApp to prevent potential protests after the Supreme Court upheld death sentences handed down to two political leaders convicted of war crimes. To fight the spread of fake news, governments already have traditional law enforcement methods such as those against rumors and libel. But more regulations and oversight are coming. In a pioneering move, Germany is considering legislation that would subject social media firms to fines for “publishing” fake news unless it is deleted within 24 hours. Indonesia is also reportedly setting up a National Cyber Agency to improve interagency coordination and the prosecution of those who put out fake news. The Ministry of Communication and Information is also asking Facebook to help block fake news. In countries with imperfect legal regimes, new regulations and governance mechanisms to tackle fake news will inevitably be intertwined with rule of law and freedom of speech issues. This calls for appropriate checks and balances to prevent abuse.

In the end, the fake news that we choose to believe in our respective digital bubbles may just be a reflection of our social and political divisions. Speaking after the social media-incited riots in England in 2011, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said: “It’s a mistake to look in the mirror and decide to break the mirror. The fact of the matter is … whatever the underlying problem was, the Internet is a reflection of that problem, but turning on and off the Internet is not going to fix it.”

Ongoing globalization and technological advances have eroded public trust in institutions, which people believe have failed to protect them from the negative effects of these forces. In Asia, there is deep unease about issues related to income inequality, erosion of social values, immigration and the rapid pace of change. Ultimately, any attempts to reverse the proliferation of fake news will need to address social fragmentation and political polarization amid anxieties about social and economic well-being, religion and identity.

Andy Yee is public policy director of Visa in greater China and previously worked for Google as an Asia-Pacific public policy analyst. This essay first appeared in Global Asia, a journal of the East Asia Foundation, with which Strategic Review has a content-sharing agreement.

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