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Fighting disinformation with media literacy in Southeast Asia

In early May 2022, Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Junior won the Philippines presidential election with an overwhelming victory. This was a shocking result as his father was responsible for plunging the country into a deep recession over his family’s plundering of the state’s finances during his term that ended in 1986 through a people’s revolution. Images of his mother’s shoe collection became infamous to highlight the family’s reckless and unashamed use of public funds.

The return to power of one of the Philippines most notorious families has been attributed by journalists and analysts to the power of disinformation campaigns perpetuated by politically-linked agents. The Marcos family employed an effective and organized disinformation campaign which “revised” its family’s history to highlight that the country was in a golden age rather than a corrupt authoritarian regime.

Social media has emerged as the new political battleground in the last decade as it is ripe for manipulation through these special political agents, often referred to as online trolls or cybertroopers. The role of these clandestine agents is to influence and distort political discourses in online spaces such as social media, comment sections and forums. According to the Oxford Internet Institute, at least 81 countries employed some form of cybertroopers to engage in information warfare on social media.

These cybertroopers employ a variety of strategies to sow discord in digital political discursive spaces. They often masquerade as regular people with specific viewpoints to either artificially inflate public support or distort and misrepresent opposing viewpoints. In most countries, cybertroopers are often deployed internally either by local governments or political parties with some cases involving bigger countries like China and Russia seeking to manipulate international discourse to promote the interests of their respective countries.

While social media platforms have tried to stop this indirectly through banning of suspicious troll accounts and more recently with labeling of state-affiliated accounts on Twitter, these actions are only effective to a certain degree. Once disinformation gets distributed it can start radicalizing people to believe these points and they in turn become “political diehards”. This was a tactic that was incredibly successful in President Duterte’s presidential campaign where he successfully indoctrinated large swathes of the Philippines public to support his bid (who became known as Diehard Duterte Supporters). The Marcos campaign clearly learned from this and directed much resources and efforts to replicate its success.

In Malaysia, a similar strategy was also employed by disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak. After his government lost the general election in 2018, largely in part due to his involvement with the now infamous 1MDB case, which was seen as the main cause behind rising costs of living in the country. With a new government in place, Najib was expected to fade in popularity once his corruption trial began. But in early 2019, he launched a social media campaign called Malu Apa Bossku (loosely translated to mean “What is there to be ashamed about, my boss”). The campaign’s goal was to rehabilitate Najib’s image in the most obnoxious and downright hypocritical way possible: Reframe his image as a man of the people. The campaign likened him to working class urban Malay youths to highlight that he is down to earth, approachable, hardworking and a victim of slander from the government.

The yearlong campaign successfully reclaimed his narrative and manipulated a large segment of Malaysians that has all but restored the political clout of a deposed leader. Even after being convicted of corruption and after failing his first appeal (a final appeal is still pending), his popularity is at an all time high. There is a strong likelihood that he would be running in the country’s next general election and there is even a chance he may stand as a prime minister candidate. After Bong Bong’s win, this is entirely possible and his political resurrection would be complete. Similar disinformation campaigns are happening across Southeast Asia as Thailand and Cambodia head to the polls this year too.

How do we fight this? Relying on the government to do this is fundamentally problematic as the reason many disinformation campaigns are so successful is simply because of great distrust amongst disenfranchised citizens in government structures and institutions. Relying on them to verify fake news will only entrench political diehards in their positions. Public trust in state institutions and the media is at an all time low and so many measures that predicate this will likely fail with those radicalized by disinformation campaigns.

Aside from online platforms having to step up their efforts to block, identify and isolate disinformation and its agents, individual media literacy development is another step that is needed. When large numbers of the public no longer trust information institutions, it is necessary to at least provide them with the tools and critical thinking skills to properly assess and evaluate their media bubbles. Even if the majority of individuals lack critical thinking skills to properly do so, minimal media literacy should be inculcated so that they would be able to understand that they are being manipulated by political agents.

Governments and civil society need to push for more media literacy programs that instill the means, tools and practices to protect people from information warfare efforts and bring some much needed stability to whatever is left of the digital public sphere. Democracy is at stake and extreme political polarization will become the norm unless we can prepare people to understand how to consume and process information in a healthy and protected manner.

Dr Benjamin YH Loh is a media scholar that employs digital ethnography to study online communities and the digital public sphere in Malaysia and the region. He focuses much of his work on the confluence between technology and society, with a particular focus on minority and marginalized communities. He is the co-editor of “Sabah from the Ground: The 2020 Elections and the Politics of Survival'' (SIRD/ISEAS, 2021) and publishes Op-Eds with Malaysiakini, SCMP and Nikkei Asia Review. He is currently a senior lecturer at the School of Media and Communication at Taylor’s University and an Associate with the Asia Centre.


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