In Part two, Asia Thinkers looks at the negative impact of fake news in Asia, with interviews and comments from journalists in Hong Kong and Singapore on actions to control the spread of fake news.

Fabricated stories posing as serious journalism are not likely to go away as they have become a means for writers to make money and potentially influence public opinion. Studies show that more and more netizens are sharing fake news, thus generating websites such as a “fake news generator or break your own news” allowing you to upload photos and write your own stories.

The growth of fake news and a heightened awareness of its damaging effects is fostering a great sense of paranoia in society. About 42% of Americans no longer believe mainstream media due to the influx of false news stories, whilst political figures like President Trump, Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, and even the Burmese military, routinely using the term “fake news” to dismiss allegations of injustices in their administration. There is general agreement that fake news continues to erode public safety and security. People are finding it harder to tell fact from fiction and often internalise false beliefs causing personal conflict and social unrest. Studies by the Harvard Business Review confirmed that fake news appears novel to users because its content is very different from that news users are normally exposed to. This encourages people to share fake news because it contains information that they think others may want to know.

What can be done to educate Asian Society on Fake news?

Social media sites are the main outlet for fake news. Social media companies are taking more responsibility and implementing rigorous fact-checking to try and ensure that their platforms do not promote or share fake news. This includes identifying and blocking links to known fake news sites and implement warnings to users that the content may be suspect. Facebook is the largest social media network in Asia with a market share of 78%  and is a major source of news. In the Philippines as much as 97% of all internet traffic is through Facebook, making it also the largest provider of fake news. Facebook is implementing artificial intelligence to try and identify fake news, but many Asian countries believe that they are not doing enough. It’s too soon to say whether Google and Facebook’s attempts to clamp down on fake news will have a significant impact.

In response to the impact that media has on fake news, several institutions and media groups have banded together to educate netizens and the public at large. A  good example is Webwise, a website hosted by the Irish Internet Safety Awareness centre. Webwise promotes safe use of the internet for young people through an information and awareness strategy helping them to identify what is fake news.

Asia Thinkers recently interviewed a former HK journalist about the impact of fake news and action by the HK SAR…

Did you find fake news generated by the HK protests have a negative effect on journalism in HK?

I think if this were to be happening anywhere in the world, it would be similar. There is an obvious impact in that it is no longer easy to differentiate credible journalism, but at the end of the day, the protests are generating news and keeping reporters and journalists employed.

Would it have any negative impact on readers, perhaps causing readers to be sceptical of what is reported?

Regardless of what your view on the current situation is, it’s always best to take everything you read or hear with ‘a pinch of salt.’ It’s not always easy to determine the truth and scepticism is perhaps a good thing at this point. Unless you know exactly what happened from the beginning to the end, you can’t make any conclusions.

Are you aware of any initiatives in HK which control fake news?

There are teams at educational establishments such as University of Hong Kong that are assisting in scrutinising images, videos and any information from the ongoing anti-government protests in an attempt to tell which are real, misleading or fake and larger corporations such as Twitter recently closed thousands of fake news accounts, including Chinese accounts targeting Hong Kong protests. As a consumer of social media platforms such as Facebook, you additionally have the freedom to ‘report’ content at your discretion, however, I’m not aware of any specific, local initiatives that have been launched. It is also difficult to agree on who should regulate fake news and decide what is fake or not. The Hong Kong government said it would make the maximum effort to provide correct information to the public and clarify rumours sweeping society, including speculation that several people had been killed in a police operation in Prince Edward MTR station on August 31st , which proved untrue.

Asian Government initiatives

Asia Thinkers interviewed members of the Hong Kong public and learnt that many believe the fury among radical protesters can often be attributed to the free-flow of fake news on online platforms and private chat groups. One HK journalist commented that “fake news and misinformation have been running rampant in Hong Kong, with allegations of rape and murder levelled against police on social media and private chat groups.” In October the High Court granted Government an injunction order to restrain people, publishing any material online that promotes the use of violence, or property damage following the suicide of a 15-year-old-girl found off Tseung Kwan O shores. The news spread sparked rumours of murder even though the girl’s mother refuted such rumours and confirmed on TV that her daughter was suffering from mental illness. Video footage taken from the school where the girl was last seen before her death showed no signs of murder. The HK Government is considering an anti-fake-news law based on the Singapore model which will be applied to news websites, social media groups and private chat groups that have become the “control centre” of the protracted anti-government protests. according to a Hong Kong legal expert.

In Malaysia, the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 criminalising the spread of fake news was timed to coincide with the general election and widely criticized to be repressive and subsequently repealed in October 2019. The Malaysian Government is currently looking at drafting a more specific law, but has also established a Government-run fact-checking portal and app, where people can search for and submit information being circulated online to check its accuracy. Government agencies also use social media to correct false information related to government activities.

Thailand has opened open a “fake news” centre to monitor online content.

The centre is set up like a war room, with monitors in the middle of the room showing charts tracking the latest “fake news” and trending Twitter hashtags. Since its launch of the “anti-fake news centre” on November 1, the Thai Digital Economy and Society Ministry on Wednesday announced that it has detected nearly 8,000 fake news items online.

In October 2019, Singapore passed the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’, which bans the spread of what the government perceives as false statements against the public interest and the use of fake accounts or bots to spread fake news. The law could be applied to news websites and closed private platforms such as chat groups and social media groups. Penalties are harsh, requiring online platforms including social networking, search engine and news services to issue corrections or remove content that the government deems false. Media companies that fail to comply face a fine of up to one million Singapore dollars. Individuals found guilty of violating the law, both inside and outside Singapore could face fines of up to $60,000 or prison for up to 10 years. Currently, the Singapore law is the harshest to be implemented by a Government in Asia.

While the laws appear to have social media in their sights, journalists are wary. One Singapore blogger responded to Asia Thinkers, stating that “such anti-fake news laws are just a rebranding of government censorship in a more appealing form, designed to fool people while enabling officials to shut down criticism they don’t like.”

The government took action twice this week on two Facebook posts it claimed contained “false statements of fact,” the first use of the law since it took effect.

One offending item was a Facebook post by an opposition politician that questioned the governance of the city-state’s sovereign wealth funds and some of their investment decisions. The other post was published by an Australia-based blog that claimed police had arrested a “whistle-blower” who “exposed” a political candidate’s religious affiliations. In both cases, Singapore officials ordered the accused to include the government’s rebuttal at the top of their posts. The government announcements were accompanied by screenshots of the original posts with the word “FALSE” stamped in giant letters across them. Facebook agreed to post the Governments rebuttal.

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Opposition lawmakers and those advocating free speech in Singapore and around the region say fake news laws will stifle public discussion and promote self-censorship. Governments argue that it is necessary to maintain stability where fake news can cause financial instability and social unrested as evidenced by the situation in Hongkong. Time will tell if the Asian governments initiatives will be enough to stem the flow of fake news which may affect the stability of Asian countries or does it become a tool to suppress independent thought.

Lead photo by Malaysiakini


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