Executive report of panel discussion by Panupong Boontongchuay (James), Program Officer SEA Junction
This event was inspired by Janjira Sombatpoonsiri’s article on “Fake News and Thailand’s Information Wars: How Politicizing Fake News Consolidates Thailand’s Authoritarian Rule”, published in the Diplomat (See more: https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/fake-news-and-thailands-information-wars/).
On 30th August 2019, SEA Junction as a learning and knowledge-sharing space on Southeast Asia welcomed over 50 participants to attend a Panel Discussion on “Information Wars in Southeast Asia”. Rosalia Sciortino, Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) Mahidol University & Executive Director of SEA Junction welcomed the panelists and the participants. She referred to a recent case of an Internet shutdown in Papua province in Indonesia to introduce the topic and highlighted the implications of the use of internet blockade by the governments to stop the flow of information in Southeast Asian countries.
The first panel speaker, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, opened the panel with a presentation on the “Political Implication of Fake News Discourse with Relevant Cases in the Philippines and Thailand”. Currently, Janjira is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at Thammasat University as well as Associate Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies as well as an Academic Advisor for the Washington-based International Center for Nonviolent Conflict.
The term “fake news” has commonly been utilized as a buzz word with different connotations, especially in the realm of politics. From Janjira’s point of view, fake news should be examined through a geo-political context in relation to its role in positioning power. It is not easy to clearly distinguish truth, lie and opinion when consuming news information. For instance, when an opinion is expressed by a person who is not in a powerful position, it can be easily dismissed. We could say that, what true or fake news really looks like often depends on the power of the source to position that information either way.
In general, the sector labelling information as fake news is usually the one with an interest in the positioning of power, including a government. Having some form of authority makes it possible to centralize the meaning of truth, for example by labelling the opposition as an enemy of truth as it happened recently in Thailand where the Future Forward Party was accused of disseminating fake news. Janjira talked further how the information wars are influencing the political situation in Southeast Asia by increasing conflict or polarizing citizens into supporters and opponents of political hierarchies. For example, in the Philippines the controversial use of information played an important role in promoting President Duterte as the challenger to perceived Manila-based elites accused of having controlled the country for several decades (like the Aquinos). In his election campaign, President Duterte employed internet bloggers and trolls to create fake news against his opposition. He has continued to use these tactics during his presidency to construct political opponents as enemies of the truth.
The second speaker, Savic Ali, discussed “Current Situation of Hate Speech and Fake News in Indonesia”. Savic is currently the director of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) online (www.nu.or.id), the most popular Islamic website in Indonesia; he is also the founder and editor of Islami.co, a website to promote moderate and peaceful Islam to counter radical fundamentalist narratives.
“Hate speech and fake news is omnipresent in social media and Indonesia is now considerably encountering this, as 100 million out of 150 million internet users are very active and little has been done to curb hate speech and fake news so far”, explained Savic. He discussed how Indonesia is increasingly becoming diverse and divided after the 1998 reforms and many Muslim fundamentalist groups have emerged both online and offline, such as the Islamic Defendant Front.
The intersection between the use of social media and Islam as a religion for the majority is now becoming a concern for Indonesia, where 95% of the population believe that religion matters to their life. Savic explained further that the vast number of Muslims do not consume the information from the mainstream media but instead from religious-affiliated channels. The implications of this intersection may be very significant. For example, recently the ex-governor of Jakarta, Mr. Ahok, was prosecuted for blasphemy after being accused of insulting Islam by the social media. Savic explained that fake news and hate speech are largely promoted by political buzzers, many of which operate from mainstream media rather than radical groups. Hence, it is essential to flood the internet with positive contents and motivate audiences to act fast before fake news go viral. Savic concluded his presentation with a short video from Islami.co as an example on how visual media create a constructive discourse on interfaith and promote peaceful co-existence between Christianity and Islam in Indonesian society.
Our final speaker, Yingcheep Atchanont, discussed the “Current situations of Fake News in Thailand”. Yingcheep is a programme manager at I-Law, a Thai legal monitoring NGO that focuses on freedom of expression in Thailand (See further: www.ilaw.or.th).
In Thailand, as Yingcheep further elaborated, the relationship between the positioning of power and fake news discourse is seriously damaging to society. For example, recently there were various cases of Thai activists being arrested and charged under Thailand’s Computer Crime Act 2017 for criticizing the Prime Minister, but the nature of the alleged misconception or misinformation is still not well-clarified. In the meantime, almost any piece of information challenging the government’s views is attacked as fake news whereas the actual focus should be placed on the verification of information, not on who is being criticized. For instance, Sarinee Achavanantakul, a Thai researcher, writer and financial freedom consultant, was recently charged as fake news producer without proper clarification as she wrote an article criticizing the Supreme Court, one of the highest-level legal institutions of Thailand.
To tackle this problem wisely, Yingcheep recommended to produce more accurate news with facts. Fake news or misinformation as a counter-attack is not a smart solution at all to counter the problem in the long-run.
In the Q&A session various issues were raised, among others:
Militarization of fake news in Southeast Asia: the Indonesian Army made a controversial decision by shutting down the internet in Papua and claimed the Reuter reports were fake news, an action that exemplifies a repeated pattern of positioning and justifying the use of authoritarian power based on the alleged lack of truth in information by independent sources. Similarly, religious institutions like NU or Muhammadiyah have tried to take steps in combatting fake news through their online platforms and schools/masjids, but the substantial obstacle is the long-existing polarization in the society.
Use of AI in the region: Southeast Asia countries have been setting up cyber security in Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia; Thailand has established the Anti-Fake News Center of Thailand. The use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and other similar technologies aims to detect possible keywords indicating fake news and hate speech online, but the key tasks are largely done by humans. However, the problem is that there is still no availability of standards to define the content or the characteristics of fake news.
Living in a world overloaded with information: this is disabling us to distinguish fakeness from factual. This requires netizens like us to seek information from more than one side in order to understand and assess different versions of the same events.
Panupong Boontongchuay (James)
SEA Junction Program Officer
Panupong Boontongchuay has a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a concentration on Southeast Asia Studies from Mahidol University International College. James is from Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, South Thailand and speaks Thai, English, Chinese and Indonesian. His passion of Southeast Asia was inspired by ex-Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, who strived to achieve ASEAN-for-all vision. In 2018, he represented Thai youth ambassador of goodwill for the forty-fourth Ship for Southeast Asia and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP). He is specially interested in issues on politics and cultures of ASEAN countries and enjoy learning languages and music to better understand the region. (I thanked you very much Fabio Saini, Catharina Maria, Rosalia Sciortino for assisting in editing and reviewing this writing 😊)