Public needed to curb fake news
Fake news -- either in the form of misinformation or disinformation -- has contributed to social and political conflicts, and according to a recent report on by researchers under USAID, it has shaped public opinion in some Asian countries. While critics call on tech companies and governments to solve the problem, increasing digital literacy among the public is the best solution to fake news.
The report, entitled "How Information Disorder Affirms Authoritarianism and Destabilizes Democracy", has shed light on how certain actors are spreading misinformation online. If Thai netizens do not start paying attention to the kinds of information they consume, the political divide between liberals and conservatives in the kingdom will continue to grow for years to come.
The Dec 16 report highlights cases of misinformation found on websites in Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Thailand. Even though the researchers have pointed fingers at foreign actors from China and Russia, they have also admitted that some misinformation efforts across the region come from local actors.
The issue itself is complex.
In the central Asian Kyrgyz Republic, researchers noted how a former customs official was involved in hiring trolls to influence public perception during an election. In South Asian Nepal, they found that foreign and domestic actors hold information disorder campaigns distorting efforts to improve community relations, disaster relief and human rights. In the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, internal and external forces aimed to drive narratives on alleged government corruption and accusations of witchcraft against women.
Though these are just some examples, but misinformation has consequences.
In Kyrgyzstan, populist ethnic nationalism is up; in Nepal, freedom of speech is being curtailed by the government; in PNG, prejudice against the LGBT community and people with HIV or Covid-19 is on the rise.
Meanwhile in Thailand, researchers found that information manipulation campaigns undermine order by "fostering narratives that justify authoritarian rule while vilifying pro-democracy efforts as unpatriotic".
As a result, anti-government political activists in Thailand are often portrayed as "un-Thai" and favouring Western-imported democratic values.
"Fake news" is not a new concept in society -- disinformation, misinformation and malinformation have plagued humanity since biblical times. More recently, in the 1930s and 40s, Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany spread false narratives on Jewish populations across Europe to garner public support.
In Indonesia in the 70s, 80s and 90s, anti-communist propaganda was widespread, resulting in prejudice and discrimination against anyone branded a socialist. Likewise, anti-communist propaganda propelled by the state media in Thailand during the 70s played a major role in creating a climate of hatred and fear that led to a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1973 and 1976.
About 74% of people living in Thailand use social media, and this can be problematic if netizens do not know how to filter information themselves, instead solely relying on tech giants to police their social media spaces.
While there is no magical solution to the problem of misinformation plaguing countries across Asia, the USAID report suggests reducing the supply of misleading online content using innovative technology that can recognise linguistic patterns and characters as a possible misinformation mitigation strategy.
"Making use of such technological innovations, many social media companies have adopted seemingly more proactive approaches to reducing the supply of disinformation and malinformation via their platforms," the report said.
It also suggests that countries like Thailand create a national platform to host independent fact-check systems, and this should be considered. Doing so will show that the government is committed to eradicating online misinformation.
One could argue that Facebook and other social media platforms should not censor the content posted on their sites and that people should have the right to consume any information they want.
But then how can we allow "fake news" to grow rampant online? Are humans destined to be eternally susceptible to it? One should know that these firms are not state-owned enterprises that have to closely abide by a different set of rules, they are private companies aiming to make profit.
Regardless of this, one thing is clear: in the age of information, without a sound national strategy or an action plan to deal with information disorder, any society divided by politics and wishing to reconcile will face many unnecessary difficulties along the way.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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