People & Society / Asia Wide

What makes Asia susceptible to fake news?

by Isabella Chua
Length 14 min

It’s more than just ignorance.

In late January, Health Minister of Indonesia Terawan Agus Putranto reported zero cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia and reassured the nation that a strong immunity, combined with prayers, would ward off the virus that had afflicted its neighbouring countries. Indonesians were unconvinced; they stocked up on face masks—prices shot up sevenfold—and sought out information about social distancing on their own. Some even chose to self-quarantine.

indonesians grocery shopping during covid-19 times

Crowds of buyers purchasing their groceries in Semarang, Indonesia.

Their skepticism was well-founded. Shortly after announcing Indonesia’s first two confirmed cases on March 2, 2020, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo admitted that he had deliberately withheld information on COVID-19 cases to prevent mass panic and worry. It was a thin excuse that validated people’s suspicions of the government’s questionable truth telling. Regional governments started taking matters into their own hands, limiting activities or installing full lockdowns within their own territories before any official decree was made by the government.

Media falsehoods—colloquially known as fake news—are neither new nor unique to Asia. Dr. Tedros, the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), has called falsehoods the “second disease” to COVID-19 and an “infodemic” plaguing countries worldwide.

But is there anything that predisposes Asian countries to accepting them more readily?


Can the authorities be trusted?

Indonesia was far from the only country whose government had concealed details about its COVID-19 situation. China infamously silenced Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who alerted his medical-school alumni group on 30 December, 2019, that seven patients in Wuhan hospital were displaying respiratory symptoms similar to the SARS coronavirus. After his message gained traction, Li was forced by the Chinese authorities to sign a letter admitting that he had made false statements that were illegal and disruptive to the social order.

dr li wenliang letter admitting he's spreading covid-19 rumours

A copy of the letter signed by Dr. Li Wenliang. Credits: Photo by Li Wenliang, letter issued by Wuhan Pubic Security Bureau Wuchang Branch, Public domain.

After Li’s own death from COVID-19, Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat blew up with the hashtags #你能做到吗, #你听明白了吗, #武汉政府欠李文亮医生一个道歉, and #我们要求言论自由 (“Can you manage?”, “Do you understand?”, “The Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology” and “We demand free speech”, respectively). The first two hashtags reference the letter Li had been made to sign, echoing the coercion forced upon the doctor to toe the line.

The global scale of COVID-19 means that such blatant cover ups are more easily exposed due to international scrutiny and real-time reportage of other countries’ COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has inadvertently revealed several tactics in the tried and true handbook of government media manipulation.

In China, for instance, politically sensitive topics have long been scrubbed clean under the Great Firewall and replaced by fabrications from its 50-cent online propaganda army—so named for their low pay for each fraudulent post. Indonesia is likewise no stranger to politically charged fabrications. A doctored video sent Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama), Jakarta’s incumbent gubernatorial candidate, to jail on false charges of blasphemy in 2017. In the 2019 Indonesian general elections, “buzzer” teams were found creating propaganda on behalf of presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his opponent—former general Prabowo Subianto—at the 2019 Indonesian general election.

Given their governments’ history of media manipulation to cast themselves in a good light, the Chinese and Indonesians were understandably doubtful when their COVID-19 situation seemed too good to be true.


Turning to alternative sources for reliable information

Without trust in information from official sources, citizen journalism has become a popular alternative in Asia. Social media pieces’ direct communication from familiar sources—one’s friends and family—makes them appear unfiltered and hence trustworthy.

Information from Wuhan was scarce during the early days of COVID-19, and Chinese citizens acted as frontline journalists through their real-time reportage of the pandemic’s effects. One such citizen journalist was Chen Qiushi, whose short vlogs, optimised for sharing on WeChat, included video footage of Wuhan hospitals, interviews with residents, and his commentary on the situation.

Chen’s on-site reporting at the makeshift Fancang Hospital set up in Wuhan. In it, he talks about how the lack of partitions in the hospital increases the risk of cross-transmission between infected and healthy patients. 

But citizen journalism can itself be a source of falsehoods. Armed with a smartphone and access to social media, anyone can claim the label of a citizen journalist and spread false information. Here are three videos claiming to share undisclosed information about COVID-19 from Wuhan. Can you spot the fake video?

First video:

A citizen journalist called Kcriss Li filmed himself going to the Baibuting Neighbourhood in Wuhan and the Wuhan Vocational College of Software and Engineering on 13 February 2020 to fact check whether there were infected people in those areas.

Second video:

A repost of a video by a medical worker in Wuhan, sharing that there were already 90,000 people infected with COVID-19 in all of China as early as late January 2020.

Third video:

In this video, the businessman turned citizen journalist Fang Bin went to visit a hospital in Wuhan. Trigger warning, this video contains footage of deceased patients.

This fake video has since amassed hundreds of thousands of online views and was even reported as genuine news in UK news publications The Sun and The Daily Mail. Such fake content is often effective because it exploits the implicit trust people have towards first person accounts.

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19—worsened by inconsistent health advisories and a lack of transparency from the authorities—was fertile ground for the spread of such falsehoods. People who are confused and desperate for information are likely to spread whatever information is available, even if these come from unverified sources.


Social media: Where falsehoods go viral

Given their reach and speed of dissemination, social media falsehoods are a problem the world has to grapple with. The Asia-Pacific region is especially susceptible to this—its users comprised approximately 56 percent of the world’s active social media users in 2020, a proportion that will only grow as the region develops.

While social media platforms do not create falsehoods per se, the tech companies which create them create features designed to keep their users addicted and captivated. Proprietary algorithms that personalise one’s newsfeed—used by major social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google—are designed to feed users information they are more likely to engage with and enjoy, based on the behavior and personal data users voluntarily provide.

This has inadvertently led to the creation of echo chambers, where social media feeds tend to give users only news and content that affirms their existing worldviews. Since platforms prioritise engagement as a metric, sensationalist and viral content—the hallmarks of fake news—often gets pushed up in newsfeeds. Stuck in their own filter bubbles, people can find it hard to discern real content from fake news.

The permissiveness of these platforms towards falsehoods in content has emboldened politicians, political groups, and even governments to create and spread misinformation. According to founder Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s does not fact-check politicians’ speech as a matter of policy and principle, because they believe that democracy entails free expression. This includes allowing politicians to run ads on Facebook even if the ads contain misinformation.

indonesian protesting jokowi's presidential election results

Indonesians protesting against the 2019 reelection of President Joko Widodo. Their involvement was fuelled by the spread of fake news, on Facebook and WhatsApp, that Widodo favoured the Chinese Indonesian community and was fostering close ties with China. 

The pandemic, along with heat from advertisers, has pressured Facebook and its affiliated services (Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger) into rolling out fact-checking measures to quell COVID-19-related misinformation. However, heaps of falsehoods still proliferate unchecked in Facebook’s “invite-only” private groups, where members may encounter false news without also being exposed to fact-checking—they have to seek it out themselves.

Asia faces even more of an uphill battle in this area. Due to the popularity of native private messaging apps in Asia, the region faces even more potential for insularity. The scale of this impact is massive— messaging apps in Asia, such as LINE (popular in Thailand, Japan, and Taiwan), KakaoTalk (serving 88 percent of South Korea’s population) and titan WeChat and QQ (both China) collectively host billions of members on their closed, unmonitored networks.

These apps are available only in selected countries, operate in native languages, and have entire ecosystems of digital functions—such as in-app payments and microblogging—built on top of their messaging functions. Creators of falsehoods can thus target regional and national populations more easily and directly. For example, dummy accounts from China infiltrated Taiwan-based bulletin board PTT to vocalise support for the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT)—Taiwan’s main opposition party—during the 2016 presidential election.

Indeed, social media is no longer just a place for frivolity; it has become a key battleground for public opinion. Elections these days are won online, and Asia’s politicians have figured out how to stir sentiment and shift movements with increasingly savvy—and often fraudulent—social media messaging.

In 2017, South Korea’s presidential election was marred by an opinion rigging scandal, in which millions of fake news replies were posted on South Korea’s dominant portal site, Naver, to help elect Moon Jae-in as president. The Moon campaign enlisted the help of Kim Dongwon, known as “Druking”, who created the KingCrab macro program to artificially inflate pro-Moon reader comments on online news.

KingCrab adroitly exploited South Korea’s phenomenon of “reply journalism”, in which South Koreans treat top comments on journalistic articles with as much weight as the articles themselves. Doing so helps readers gauge what the prevailing public opinion is and fall in line—an important skill given South Korea’s collectivist social norms.

south korean protesting against moon jae in's presidency and calling for his impeachmenty

A protestor calling for President Moon Jae-in’s impeachment over the scandal. Credits: Cyberdoomslayer / CC BY-SA.

It is clear that states in Asia both contribute to misinformation on social media and seek to stop its worst excesses—an uneasy balancing act. What measures have the region’s governments taken to combat its spread?


Policing of falsehoods

Allowing the spread of misinformation under the principle of unfettered free speech—commonplace in Western societies and enshrined in the United States Constitution’s First Amendment—has not held much sway here in Asia. Governments in Asia have instituted laws aimed at strong-arming social media platforms, such as Facebook, into removing falsehoods, albeit to mixed effect.

The majority of laws related to falsehoods have been passed in recent years. All share a similar premise: falsehoods and their variations are threats that must be swiftly clamped down before they threaten national security and public safety.

This year alone, for instance, a few governments in Asia have created laws specifically to combat COVID-19 falsehoods, which have resulted in racial and religious attacks, deaths from fake COVID-19 cures, and abuses of healthcare workers.

What is less clear, however, is what exactly constitutes fake news. Some laws define it by its result—e.g., “cause fear and alarm to the public” (India)—rather than its content. Other legislations leave it to the state to deem whether a piece of content is “prejudicial, or likely to be prejudicial, to public order or national security” (Malaysia), leaving its producers punishable under the laws.

The vagueness and general wording of such fake news legislation may be intentional given the spectrum of falsehood types; this also allows governments to anticipate future iterations of falsehoods. However, the laws’ open-endedness has also enabled governments to target persons and organisations, such as known activists and political opposition figures.

In Thailand, prodemocracy activist Karn Pongpraphapan, who campaigned for an election during Thailand’s military rule, was charged with threatening the nation’s monarchy even though his Facebook post had only referenced the downfall of European monarchies Closer to home, vocal critics of Singapore’s ruling party such as Lim Tean, the party chief of Peoples’ Voice, and Alex Tan, creator of the States Times Review, have received Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) notices.

Dealing with fake news is unchartered territory for governments and citizens alike. Countries determined to stop its growth may choose to set a strong precedent by making an example out of prominent figures.

However the new and recent implementation of these laws also opens them to more international scrutiny and criticism over allegations of human rights and freedom of speech suppression. Governments’ responses to these criticisms will set a precedent for other countries and determine the future of fake news regulation in Asia.


Solving Asia’s fake news problem

Governments are always placed on the back foot given the speed at which falsehoods mutate. Still, even if measures against fake news can keep up with their production, tackling misinformation remains a Sisyphean task if the root of the problem is not addressed.

The erosion of trust towards governments and official sources has encouraged alternative sources—and the falsehoods that accompany them—to proliferate. Countries that fail to rebuild and restore public trust in their governments inadvertently push their people towards social media and the misinformation they often facilitate.

These platforms, by design, create insular environments. Social media news feeds curate information that algorithms think people want to see, regardless of their veracity, and private messaging platforms make it easy to share and receive false news from people whom one otherwise trusts. This reinforces online echo chambers, in which truths are selective and falsehoods a matter of disagreement rather than fact.

In this way, any measures against fake news are retroactive; the threat is already fully formed and planted in different online spheres. Stopping falsehoods also comes at the risk of overreach on the part of states—online responses to Asia’s fake news laws have been largely negative, in part due to vocal opposition from human rights groups. An unintended consequence of these measures could be further erosion of trust towards the government, which may be perceived as misusing these measures for its own interests.

This brings us back to the root of the problem: a lack of trust towards governments. For falsehoods to lose their potency, people need to be able to trust official sources and take their leaders’ word for it. Ideally, this will entail greater transparency in news, a commitment to press freedom norms, and a sociopolitical environment which holds its leaders accountable for their actions.

Of course, achieving these norms will not be equally easy across Asian countries and their political systems—and even this would probably not guarantee the total elimination of falsehoods. Even the country with the greatest press freedom, Norway, is not impervious to fake news.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon of falsehoods will only get thornier and more sophisticated in the future. Equipping themselves with more than one strategy in their political arsenal may give Asian governments a better chance at combating them.