Disinformation, Disunity, and Division in Southeast Asian Elections

The outcome of Malaysia’s 14th General Election in 2018 was not decided in the public forums, on television, or even in the streets. It was settled in WhatsApp chats, by chain messages, and on Facebook. The election saw the opposition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad end the ruling Barisan National coalition’s 60-year rule of Malaysia. The result was hailed as a victory for democracy and showed social media’s power to mobilise grassroots political action support. However, a series of Southeast Asian elections in 2019 highlighted social media’s potential to spread disinformation. Idealistic notions of social media empowering democratisation were shattered by political actors who used social media as a platform to spread fake news, stoking long-standing communal conflicts and impede or reverse hard-earned democratic gains.

Southeast Asia is the fastest-growing internet market globally, where most people access the internet through mobile phones. A development made possible by a combination of favourable policies and technological advances pushed smartphones’ cost to affordable levels. Facebook and WhatsApp have emerged as the dominant social media platforms, mainly due to efforts to adapt the apps, so they operate on the low-end phone’s common in more impoverished nations. Facebook’s dominance is so great that to many individuals, Facebook is the internet.

The reliance on Facebook and other social media platforms for information has led to increased consumption of unverified user-generated content on social media, at the expense of fact-based traditional media. In the absence of moderating influences such as fact-checkers and a well-developed education system, fake news is taken at face value by readers. While fake news has always existed, it was rumors or state-controlled media that dispersed it. Social media has acted as an accelerant, intensifying the spread of disinformation as fake news goes viral. 

Imagine growing up in a country dominated by state media, and then suddenly thinking you have access to all the information the world has to offer through the Facebook app on your phone. Only its often disinformation, fake news driven into your feed by an algorithm designed to build an echo chamber that reflects the user’s values and beliefs. In this virtual community of likeminded people, individuals are more susceptible to the manipulation of both charismatic grassroots leaders, wishing to recruit followers to their cause and democratically elected strongmen. The latter take advantage of social media to silence political opposition. The result, further polarisation of society, the isolation of ethnic and religious minorities, and in some cases, violence. 

Source: Flickr, 2017.

In 2019, national elections in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines saw politicians, faith groups, and other actors directly employing digital disinformation to mobilise supporters. Political parties used digital campaign specialists and hired trolls to circulate manipulative narratives to discredit their political opponents. A notable example being stories portraying Jokowi, the Indonesian President and a Javanese Muslim, as a Chinese, Christian, or a communist. While Jokowi’s allies spread disinformation describing Prabowo, the opposition candidate, as both irreligious and wanting to create an Islamic Caliphate. Fake news that inflames ethnic and religious divisions is dangerous. After all, the Rohingya Genocide began with fake news posted on Facebook. 

Fake news did not spark a genocide in Indonesia in the aftermath of the election. However, it did start a riot. In the election’s aftermath, Prabowo claimed that widespread electoral fraud had taken place. Fake news supporting these allegations went viral, prompting thousands of protestors to riot. Six died, hundreds were injured. 

In the Philippines, midterm elections saw a resounding victory for allies of President Duterte, allowing Duterte to consolidate his control of the Filipino Congress and Senate. Since his presidential campaign in 2016, Duterte has used Facebook as a weapon to discredit political opponents and silence independent media organisation that challenge his carefully crafted narrative. Duterte has repeatedly called news outlets that criticise him ‘fake news’ and used disinformation campaigns to justify controversial policies such as imprisoning critics such as Senator Leila De Lima and launching the bloody Philippine Drug War. These highly successful fake news campaign, run out of boardrooms and troll farms, have generated a groundswell of support that propelled Duterte to the Presidency and his allies to victory in 2019. 

While social media still has the potential to bring people together to promote change, such as ending Barisan National’s rule in Malaysia, political actors used social media to spread fake news during Southeast Asia’s elections in 2019. Disinformation and hate speech have become an essential part of political campaigns. It is of vital importance that the disunity and division caused by fake news be corrected. The first step is to improve the populace’s digital literacy. The second and potentially more problematic is establishing a local set of norms and standards regarding social media content during elections. Otherwise, fake news may be the spark the burns the region’s fragile democracies to the ground. 

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