Misinformation deadly serious in Asia

In many countries in Asia, people receive hundreds of social media messages a day that include misleading claims, obscure factoids, and utterly bogus information; the consequences can be dire.

Rumors of child kidnappers on WhatsApp in India, for example, have led to lynching and killing of innocent passersby across the country in recent months. A similar incident also took place in Indonesia last year.

In Sri Lanka, widely-shared rumors on Facebook about Muslim conspiracy against Buddhist majority led to a wave of violence. Similar conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims, partly fueled by unfounded hearsay and hate speech on social media, have incited riots in Myanmar, too.

The so-called “fake news,” a catch-all term that encompasses everything from fabricated content to errors in news reports to rhetorical attack on unflattering media, has been a severe issue in Asia.

Misinformation and disinformation obfuscate reality, distorts our views, and negates the foundation of our meaningful exchange of ideas in daily lives. Like France and Germany, some governments and lawmakers in countries like Singapore, Cambodia, and South Korea are mulling legislative measures to tackle the problem.

In the following video, AJ reports from the Trusted Media Summit 2018 in Singapore where many concerned journalists, academics, and other media professionals who specialize in fact-checking in the region got together to exchange ideas and explore possible collaboration in the fight against misinformation and disinformation.

And yes, he has finally found me, Strapline’s timid leader, there . . .

My presentation at the event was based on the research project I have been working on with other like-minded journalists and educators in the region. The overview paper is already out and publicly available for download.

Key Ideas
  • Misinformation and disinformation have been an extremely serious issue in many Asian countries for many years.
  • To understand the scale and impact of the information disorder in our region, we need to take into account the uniqueness of the misinformation ecosystem in each country because, naturally, the matters at the heart vary considerably.
  • Many intertwined factors affect the situation in each country, including culture, history, politics, economy, education, digital adoption, technology trends, media law, and press systems.
  • Social media and chat apps like WhatsApp and LINE have become the primary means of communication and news consumption for many. Rumors and hoaxes spreading through encrypted messaging apps are particularly hard to detect from the outside because they are shared among closed communities.
For Teachers

Learning Outcome
Students will be able to develop a better understanding of the issues related to “fake news” by exploring the misinformation ecosystem in their own countries.

Suggested Activity
Before the activity, it would be a good idea to show the students one or two case studies that demonstrate how serious consequences can be when misinformation goes viral (our research paper has a plenty of such cases from different Asian countries).

Ask students to find/collect similar cases in the country/community (perhaps as homework) and then discuss in class the following aspects:

  • On which platforms do falsehoods spread?
  • Who produces false information? Who spreads it? What motivates them?
  • Are there any specific topics, issues, and individuals that become targets? If so, what are they?
  • Why do certain topics stir more reactions from people? What explains it — culture, history, politics, religion, education, or?
  • What is the scale and impact of false or misleading news reports in your country/community?

Caution: This could be a sensitive activity in some countries. Some issues to come up in the discussion are the government’s involvement in propaganda, the nature of targetted topics such as religion and race, and/or polarized political or economic divides.