ASEAN nations are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of social media, but experts at a panel in Kuala Lumpur have warned that purveyors of fake news and sensationalism online are threatening democracy region-wide.
“Social media makes everyone a journalist,” said Paul Low Seng Kuan, a minister in Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Department. “But not everyone can discern what is true and what isn’t.”
Indonesia’s former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who also addressed the issue of social media’s dangers, first flagged concerns about popularism in his opening remarks at the “State of Democracy in Southeast Asia” conference held in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend.
Yudhoyono identified “an attempt to swing the pendulum back towards authoritarianism,” but did not single out any specific governments or individuals, instead forecasting the retreat of democracy in the region if a trend toward popularism continues to gain a foothold.
The conference, hosted jointly by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), convened to address challenges to the sustainable spread of democracy in the region as ASEAN nations contend with the growth of identity politics, threats to press freedom and concerns over electoral legitimacy.
It came only two weeks after the Arakan Advisory Commission, led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, delivered its final report on tensions in Burma’s westernmost state. By the next morning, Muslim militants had unleashed attacks on more than 20 police outposts in northern Arakan State.
In the wake of the Burma Army’s response, which human rights advocates say has been violently disproportionate, confusion has reigned on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Unverified images and videos of rights abuses purportedly perpetrated by both sides of the conflict have exacerbated tensions across the country.
The former Indonesian president warned that while media and governments have always needed to guard against falsehoods, modern technology allows unverified “news” to spread at “blinking speed.”
“Yes, lies and fabrication have always been part of politics. But information technology and social media have made this problem rise to a new level and scope. This is not something that will go away anytime soon,” he said.
“No one quite knows how to deal with it. What is certain is that this problem of fake news will reduce the quality of our politics, and the quality of our democracy.”
While ASEAN experts and policymakers in Malaysia debated the influence of fake news, Naypyidaw’s top spokesperson was harnessing the power of social media to denounce international media outlets’ reporting on the crisis in Arakan State.
Zaw Htay, a spokesperson for the State Counsellor’s Office and perhaps one of its most outspoken officials, posted a flurry of Tweets over the weekend condemning what he deemed “fake news” circulating online.
The latest violence between Rohingya militants and state security forces has drawn civilians to social media — increasingly Twitter, which has been largely ignored by the Burmese populace — with more vigour than perhaps any other topic in recent years. Fierce debates rage on social media platforms between Burmese in-country, foreign media workers and observers, with ire almost exclusively reserved for the Rohingya crisis.
Burma’s Information Committee, which until a week ago was attributed to the State Counsellor’s office, has also adopted a policy of condemning “fake news.” On Tuesday the official Facebook page warned citizens to, “Beware of the spread of fake news on social media,” referencing a post by the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Mehmet Simsek, that incorrectly identified several images as recent photographs from Arakan State.
Simsek later deleted the offending post, apologising to his followers for sharing the misleading content.
National leaders have an obligation to rise above sensationalist identity politics, said the Singaporean ministry of foreign affairs’ ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, at a discussion on development and democratisation in the region.
“Just following the people is an abdication of leadership,” he said during the first panel discussion of the two-day conference.
Former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan also warned of catering to populism, noting that a government’s majority rule does not entitle it to make unilateral decisions.
“Popularism is creeping into the political process and has brought more pressure and problems,” he said.