To fight fake news and other forms of disinformation, the best arsenal is education on media and information literacy (MIL). Unlike legality, MIL relies directly on users' awareness. While other solutions are not without interest, their shortcomings become apparent quickly.
The ever-growing use of social media websites and related applications, added to the decline of more traditional information sources of information over the past decade has been accompanied by a dramatic surge in online disinformation.
The Covid-19 pandemic crisis saw a drastic increase in this phenomenon and generated what the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled an "infodemic".
Taiwan gives a prime example of the non-legal fight against disinformation, and the "infodemic" in particular. Instead of passing "fake news" legislation, the government uses transparent, readable, fast and independent fact-checking.
Based on the principles of "fast, fair and fun", Taiwan recognises that counter-disinformation responses are most impactful when done within one hour after the circulation of disinformation.
The responses, which usually come in the form of memes and pictures, are designed to capture attention first, before introducing the facts that counter the false information. Taiwan's experience shows that in dealing with the infodemic, a confident and grounded government, combined with an informed citizenry, is the best defence.
The infodemic flourishes in the absence of credible and transparent information. The latter situation arose in Japan, for example. Under the Covid-19 State of Emergency (SOE), journalists' access to government press conferences shrank.
However, governments have the highest responsibility, ethically and legally, in ensuring that citizens have access to accurate and reliable information. As a result, a healthy and independent media environment is required to prevent government-led information sources from turning into state propaganda.
Effective MIL exhorts citizens to quickly recognise potentially problematic sources of information. The latter includes recognising "fact-checking" agencies set up by several governments.
For example, the Ministry of Communication and Multimedia of Malaysia established Sebenarnya.my in 2017. Critics, however, pointed out immediately that the fact-checking website promoted the government's version of the truth and lacked objectivity. The risk is that purported government "fact checking" is merely a vehicle for stifling criticism. MIL imparts the necessary critical thinking skills that steer citizens to recognise credible and independent sources of information.
Civil society organisations such as Mafindo in Indonesia have sought to counter this risk by forming independent fact-checking networks. These offer a portal for citizens to verify information they read online and to signal dubious information. However, most of such fact-finding organisations suffer from insufficient funding and human resources, which makes it impossible for them to sift through the amount of information shared every second over Internet and social media.
Tech firms have recently created tools and processes for users to signal harmful content. As with fact-checking, however, their responses are logically reactive, consisting of taking down content that has been signalled. By the time the content is removed from the platform, it has been shared widely and could be out of control already.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook opened a Covid-19 Information Center and automatically added a cautionary link to any post mentioning Covid-19. While this systematic redirection to reliable information is laudable, its indiscriminate target soon rendered it ineffective as users grew accustomed to the warning.
Reliable and usable MIL requires imparting a minimum understanding of the technologies deployed by tech firms, in particular new technologies such as artificial intelligence and algorithms, to attract citizens to preferred content and to false and misleading content that is harmful -- all of this in the name of advertising revenue and data collection.
Google has claimed that they fight fake news by elevating quality journalism on their platforms: their search engine ranks news query results by relevance and authoritativeness. The problem is that time-consuming quality journalism, including investigative journalism, is not profitable and has fallen prey to large, profit-seeking media corporations.
Additionally, whereas fact-checking initiatives are hampered by the spread of fake news in numerous languages, MIL empowers any media user to recognise and avoid fake news. In South Korea, extracurricular and youth centre programmes dedicated to different aspects of media and information literacy are extremely common, and school curriculum reforms since 2007, have been incrementally integrating elements of MIL. In contrast, Southeast Asia seems to lag behind in MIL promotion and training.
To address the global need for media literacy education, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has produced tools ranging from a country assessment framework and policy recommendations, to a teacher curriculum and class materials.
An effective use and appropriation of these MIL tools by Southeast Asian states would be a victory in the fight against disinformation. Moreover, the advancement of freedom of expression and democracy depend on a media-savvy public that can easily detect and defeat disinformation.
Each of the solutions to disinformation has a role to play and none should be abandoned. Nevertheless, the most effective weapon against disinformation remains media literacy, inclusive of digital literacy, which should not only be encouraged through local CSO initiatives and specialised centres but most importantly be integrated as a core part of formal education in every country.
Peifen Hsieh is the deputy director for international affairs and spokesman of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan. Robin Ramcharan is the executive director of Asia Centre based in Bangkok.