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East Asia Civil Society Strengthens Fight Against Disinformation

More and more civil society and advocates in East Asia are expressing their concerns on the rise of information manipulation to influence public views and behavior, mislead, incite hatred & fear and even revise factual historical accounts. At the margins of this year’s East Asia Democracy Forum in Taipei, the Open Culture Foundation (OCF), together with EngageMedia, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), and Innovation for Change East Asia gathered digital rights advocates, journalists, bloggers, and citizen journalists from Northeast Asia from China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and from Southeast Asia from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, for a 3-day workshop on June 26-28, 2018, to identify solutions & explore collaborations to combat disinformation in the region.

“We want to discuss the most pressing issue that impacts democracy today, and for us that is the rise of disinformation online. We want to come up with a comprehensive strategy against disinformation,” says Yu Hsuan Chang of OCF. OCF is a Taiwan-based organization supporting local communities advocate for open technologies.

Disinformation in Elections

A lot of countries in East Asia have experienced surge of disinformation on social media, specially during election season. In the Philippines, troll factories were employed to manufacture extremely divisive memes and revisionist historical narratives in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential elections.

In Malaysia, Maryam Lee, a young feminist activist, recounted being the subject of disinformation during the recently concluded Malaysian general electoral campaign.

Maryam believes that spoiling ballots is a democratic right, and she, along with other activists in Malaysia campaigned for the hashtag #UndiRosak, as they don’t want to vote for any of the candidates running that time. She was accused of being financially supported by the then government of Najib Razak. Even media outlets reported that Maryam was being “financially & politically” supported, and there were even posts circulated around that she was paid by Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm accused of illegally sourcing Facebook data using it to influence political campaigns. Maryam adds that the misinformation campaign led to people attacking her based on her gender, even after the elections.

Maryam was one of the participants in the Combatting Disinformation workshop who has pledged to collaborate with civil society across the region to assert that government censorship will never be a solution to address disinformation & misinformation.

During the workshop, there were also groups recommending to engage election monitors to address the disinformation challenge during election campaigns as it can greatly impact the electorates’ decision on who to vote come election time. In this joint declaration on fake news, disinformation, & propaganda, released by freedom of expression monitors around the world, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, media outlets, in line with their watchdog role in society, are also encouraged to consider including critical coverage of disinformation and propaganda during elections.

Fact-checkers vs Disinformation

Fighting disinformation has led to a lot of organizations taking on fact-checking initiatives. There’s Fact Check Initiative Japan & Cofacts in Taiwan. In the Philippines, Rappler and Vera Files, both teamed up with Facebook for a fact-checking program to prevent false news from spreading on the social media platform. In Malaysia, there’s a very active facebook page called The Malaysian Feminist that fact-checks what is going viral in social media.

GarGar, Project Coordinator of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), also shares their initiatives on Digital Literacy, and a fact-checking crowdsourcing initiative on social media they call “Real or Not” in Myanmar.

Chihao of adds their current contribution in the fight against disinformation. “We started as a Congressional watchdog organization. What we do at the core is we fact-check politicians and candidates on their claims and policies, and we find out what they’ve done in the past based on Congressional records and their past promises. We try to disseminate truthful information to fight disinformation.”

Disinformation Policies And Legislation

One of the key questions in the fight against disinformation is if legislation and/or criminalization the solution. Governments in Southeast Asia are in different stages of developing legislation/policies against what they call “fake news”. In Malaysia, an anti-fake news law was passed just before the elections, and activists and lawyers expressed concern on the speed that it was passed as it was very rushed, and how it will severely undermine the right to freedom of expression in the country. In Singapore, according to Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam, a new law to tackle the spread of fake news are expected to be introduced next year.

The Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media in the Philippines has also conducted hearings on fake news, which also led to the head of the committee Senator Grace Poe proposing a Senate Bill amending the Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Employees, to penalize those in government who publish and/or spread false news or information in any platform.”

Working Together

A lot of collaborative ideas popped up during the workshop in Taipei proving participants’ aspiration to work together even after the workshop. There were groups who want to work on publishing a Study on Disinformation Laws and Policies in Asia that will provide a database of resources on laws, cases, updates, and statistics in the region. There were also groups looking at setting up a disinformation alarm/alert group for building solidarity that will serve as a ‘rapid response’ for journalists and fact-checkers assisting each other in combatting disinformation. To address the issue of disinformation during elections, participants were eager in collaborating to monitor disinformation in elections, especially with several elections coming up in the region. There were also activists who are interested to pursue more digital literacy and digital activism training focusing on security, as well as looking at getting more converging initiatives of art and technology circles.

EngageMedia plans to support the collaborations identified in the workshop and beyond to also bring to the core the need to expand and strengthen the movement in the region in fighting social injustice and human rights violations online and offline.

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