The Role of Fake News in Politics, Stability and Elections

By The Irrawaddy 3 May 2019

Legislation is being introduced across Southeast Asia to combat fake news in the name of preserving social harmony. In practice, however, it is too often used by long-sitting regimes as a tool to discredit political opponents ahead of critical events such as elections and referendums. As a result, democratic values like freedom of expression and press freedom are directly impacted by legal retaliation to what governments call “fake news” written by their critics.

At the heart of this problem is the issue of trust around governmental transparency, according to James Gomez, director of the Asia Centre, an organization which works to create positive social impact in the region.

A communications and human rights specialist, Gomez explained that there is a lack of trust between long-standing regimes and those who want regime change, better governmental transparency and access to information. Hence, both sitting governments and their critics do not trust each other.

“There is a need to bridge the trust gap in Southeast Asia. Instead of looking for opportunities to build trust, fake news legislation is being used. However, this does not address the root problem of governmental transparency or the lack of access to information,” he said.

Today, as mobile penetration rates increase and more people are getting connected via social media, Myanmar is not a stranger to religious or political fake news. Ahead of next year’s general election, The Irrawaddy interviewed James Gomez to gain a better insight into the nature of fake news, its political impact and other governments’ attempts at reining it in.

How many kinds of fake news have you identified?

Three. First, there is the everyday, non-political fake news, intended to create traffic on the internet or social media through sensationalism. For example, in April 2018 in Malaysia, hundreds of people gathered in front of a local supermarket after receiving messages on WhatsApp that Johor Bahru’s crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim was coming over to pay for his groceries.

The second type is related to religious and ethnic issues which are often [more] pronounced in multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies. In Malaysia, in November 2018, fake news stirred up racial hatred and riots over the supposed relocation of a local Hindu temple in Subang Jaya. It resulted in two days of unrest, extensive damage to the office of the developer who owns the land where the temple is located, and the death of a Malay firefighter who was lynched by an angry Indian mob.

Third, there is fake news used as political criticism against competing political contenders. In Thailand, a week before the general election in March 2019, a pro-military junta news agency, Nation TV aired a dubious recorded telephone conversation claiming to be a deal-making between Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of progressive anti-military Future Forward Party (FFP), and the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Understandably, the broadcast is aimed at swaying voters away from the FFP, exploiting the deep-seated fear and hatred against the former prime minister. However, it backfired as Thanathorn himself challenged the authenticity of the clip and the viewers were not convinced and even criticized the news agency for reporting “fake news” that favored the military junta and the pro-military parties.

The use of fake news as a political tool by authoritarian governments against its critics is the largest form of fake news in the region.

Apart from Southeast Asia, how has fake news differed from region to region, i.e. in North America and Europe?

In North America, in the United States specifically, the instances of fake news are related to dubious content produced by foreign sources about candidates’ qualifications and political ideology on social media advertisements during the presidential election.

Meanwhile, in Europe, apart from foreign elements meddling in domestic decision-making processes such as Brexit, fake news is disguised as hate speech targeting minority groups and championing the causes of recently resurgent right-wing populism.

In East Asia, fake news concerns China’s sophisticated efforts to undermine democracies in the region via disinformation campaigns. In November 2018, ahead of the local mid-term election, Taiwan became a testing ground for China’s orchestrated disinformation trying to sway voters from the Democratic Progressive Party which has an anti-China stance and persuading them to lean towards candidates who are more sympathetic to Beijing.

How have the governments there tackled the problem? Do you see any effectiveness in their actions?

Mostly governments deal with the fake news problem through enacting news legislation, but there are differences depending on the national context of each country.

In France, the law is aimed at preventing foreign influence in domestic elections, so it applies to the election period only. During the run-up period, the judiciary can order technological companies to remove “incorrect or misleading allegations or accusations” that are likely to influence voters in the local election. On top of that, these platforms are required to provide full information regarding advertisers promoting content relating to matters of public debate during the election season.

In Germany, the focus is on hate speech distributed via social media. The law targets only social networks that have more than 2 million registered users in the country. It gives service providers a 24-hour period to act after they are informed of “obviously law-breaking material” and, for the more ambiguous cases, this period extends to seven days. The targeted content is child pornography, threats, incitement to crime and incitement to racial hatred, and includes violations of Germany’s strict laws against Nazi symbols and genocide denial.

Recently, there were elections in the Southeast Asian region. Did fake news pose any threats to the polls there?

In Thailand, during the run-up to the elections, most—if not all—instances of fake news took the form of character assassination and overt disinformation directed against the newly-formed Future Forward Party (FFP) and its key leadership, particularly the head of the party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The FFP represents the youth and those who are against the military junta, so it has been subject to a myriad of disinformation campaigns seemingly coming from the military and the conservative right-wing factions. Ironically, the main legislation that deals with the fake news problem is the vaguely-worded Computer Crime Act (CCA), which the military regime has employed to press charges against Thanathorn and other FFP leaders both during and after the election period. In short, in Thailand, the State itself is the purveyor of fake news.

In Indonesia, weeks before the 2019 general election in April, there was a sharp increase in fake news and disinformation. The Ministry for Communication and Information Technology of Indonesia revealed more than 700 election-related hoaxes in March 2019. Still, the post-election period remains a battle over truth as the official results will only be announced on May 22. Even though the incumbent President Joko Widodo emerged victorious in the first count, his contender former General Prabowo Subianto declined to accept the results. Prabowo threatened to mobilize his supporters and form a fact-checking team to prove what was alleged to be a “structured, systematic and massive network of fraud” in the recent election. In the country where trust in traditional media is low, and the military has historically and traditionally enjoyed popular support, Prabowo’s refusal to use proper, available-at-hand legal mechanisms, instead projecting his views of electoral fraud, could prove to be fatal to the social cohesion.

Myanmar has been faced with fake news, especially on religion, race and politics. How is it different from other regional countries?

Myanmar is one of three countries in ASEAN—the two others being Indonesia and Malaysia—where fake news or hate speech related to ethnicity and religion is prevalent and high. In all three countries, the common thread is that there is a major dominant religion and hardliners, through an appeal to nationalism, spread hatred via social media against minorities. However, in Myanmar, this phenomenon is connected historically to the state of fake news against minorities which is well entrenched before the arrival of the internet and social media. For a long time, Myanmar has been under the yoke of fake news, propaganda and unverified information about its minority communities that has been spread through state-controlled media, faith-based teachings, trainings for all government officials as well as through educational institutions which parents then pass onto their children.

During this pre-internet period, minorities faced everyday structural discrimination within the state system. This misinformation has now spilled over onto social media. Even before the wider adoption of Facebook, inappropriate remarks against minorities were being circulated via Viber during its early use. The challenge that social media poses is that hate speech becomes viral and rises into a frenzy. As a result, this shifts the impact on minority communities from structural discrimination to a risk of experiencing physical violence.

Myanmar will also have an election next year. Based on what you have seen in other countries, what are your predictions on the impact of fake news on the country’s election? 

For Myanmar, there is a two-part timeline that observers need to note.

The first part is the next 18 months in the run-up to the elections. During this period internet penetration will likely cross 50% (39% as of now) and most users will be on social media such as Facebook with an increasing uptake of WhatsApp. Those without internet or social media access will be able to get information from these platforms by word of mouth from family members and friends. Independent media is likely to come under further attack with journalists and media owners being penalized leading to either self-censorship, journalists changing vocation or media companies shutting down. Like elsewhere in the region, legislation in the name of promoting harmony will be rolled out to deal with fake news that spreads hatred. However, indictments will largely be aimed at critics of the State including independent media as well as international NGOs and the UN. Fake news will be used by all sides to bolster their political position, even if it means some quarters will try to garner support from religious hardliners. In short, the next 18 months will see an evolution in the media landscape making the Myanmar elections also a media election. The face of Myanmar media is likely to be very different after the elections.

We also need to factor in a second timeline of at least six months after the elections. Again, as elsewhere in the region, results may be contested and this will lead to political uncertainty and disquiet. During this time, we can also expect governmental fake news to spike as the immediate past administration will try to explain the situation. If there is a regime change, the loser might also mount a post-election campaign using fake news. We could also see the disqualification of candidates, the overturning of election results and dissolution of political parties as has happened elsewhere in the region.

What is the role of independent media in the fight against fake news? Is it the most effective tool or are there any better alternatives?

Independent media alone cannot fight fake news. Different stakeholders need to develop a broad-based coalition that goes beyond the electoral timeline. It needs to include stakeholders involved in fact-checking, media literacy, the promotion of quality journalism, technology companies and government. There should also be legislation on access to information. If efforts are singular and sectoral and limited to an election cycle, such measures will not be holistic nor effective.

The key issue is to bridge the trust gap between the existing regimes and those who want regime change to introduce governmental transparency or access to information. Presently there is a stalemate. This is the challenge for Myanmar.