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.