In Southeast Asia, a region full of young democracies, journalists and press freedom advocates are alarmed by politicians’ eager uptake of two cultural memes spawned by the Trump election and presidency — adviser Kellyanne Conway’s neologism “alternative facts” and the label “fake news”—in response to human rights allegations.
Soon after last year’s US election, the term “fake news” morphed from a way to describe emotionally-charged clickbait into an insult that even Donald Trump habitually lobbed at reporting that displeased him. Now Asian leaders are using the term to dismiss various allegations of state-sanctioned violence, from drug-related killings in the Philippines to abuses against minority groups. And they’re doing so not just for domestic audiences, but in prominent global settings.
There was the Philippine senator, now the country’s foreign secretary, who spoke before the UN Human Rights Council last month and said that extrajudicial killing statistics being cited by journalists and activists were “alternative facts.” Last week, the Myanmar military rejected UN allegations of murders and rapes of the Muslim Rohingya minority as “false and fabricated.” In Cambodia, when prime minister Hun Sen attacked two journalists as “the opposition,” his soapbox was the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, in a room full of foreign attendees and journalists.
“What Trump is doing in the US is enabling and empowering authoritarians all over the world,” said Karin Karlekar, director of advocacy group PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs. “The ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ rhetoric is particularly disturbing because it’s not just attacking the press, but aims to delegitimize journalism.”
And, at the same time as Southeast Asian leaders dismiss allegations of abuse that have been well substantiated, they make authoritarian moves based on actual fake news. Last week, for example, Duterte cited the beheading of a police chief by Islamist militants for his reason to impose martial law in the southern Philippines. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the official in question was alive.
The genius of this particular insult is twofold: it only has to raise doubts to work, not conclusively prove falsehood. Second, fake news isn’t just a straw man: it is a real problem in recent years within every country’s current media, and perhaps especially so in Southeast Asia, where press institutions are often young and weak.
Thanks Southeast Asian countries rank uniformly low on the World Press Freedom Index: the best, Indonesia, is ranked 124th out of 180. The Philippines is ranked 127th, Myanmar 131st, Cambodia, 132nd, Thailand 142nd, Malaysia 144th, Singapore 151st, Brunei 156th, Laos 170th, and Vietnam 175th.
Southeast Asia’s journalists are frequently operating in environments shaped by former military rule, as in the case of the Philippines and Indonesia, or in present-day one-party systems, as in Vietnam or Laos, where governments are used to exerting a great deal of control over the press.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who was a journalist in Indonesia after the three-decade Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998, recalls how the government used to express displeasure directly to journalists back then.
“When I was a cub reporter at the Jakarta Post in the 1990s, there was a big whiteboard in the front of my newsroom. Every day our newsroom secretaries would update it with whatever warning or phone calls they had received from the military or the ministry of information,” Harsono told Quartz. “I had never heard the [Indonesian] term hoaks or ‘fake news’ until last year.”
Threats, physical attacks and even killings of of journalists continue to occur in this region. But these days governments find it harder to control the narrative as novel news outlets and social media proliferate.
Shyam Tekwani, a media scholar at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, says the tendency to publicly call out specific stories is a product of the uptick in publications and social media use in the region.
“You once had two newspapers, a pro- and anti- establishment one, which made it easy to identify the preferred government narrative,” said Tekwani.
Amid these changes, Trump’s approach towards the press has been noted.
“Trump’s sentiments are similar to what Cambodian officials already say, and they’re happy to hear the leaders of free countries say the same things,” said Pa Nguon Teang, founder of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. “That’s why our leaders quickly supported and started referring to the Trump administration’s attacks on the press in order to justify their opposition to the Cambodian media, especially the independent ones.”
Within the unwieldy category of “real” fake news, falsehoods do circulate fast, often with potentially dangerous consequences.
In Indonesia, for instance, vitriolic fake news about Chinese-Indonesians and the former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, who is ethnically Chinese and also Christian, likely swayed his gubernatorial election loss last month while also stoking ire around the blasphemy allegation for which he was sentenced this month. The focus on Indonesia’s longstanding ethnic Chinese community in material circulating via social media in recent years is worrying because of attacks on the community in the past.
The Australian media monitoring firm Isentia ran a study in February about the shares accorded to inflammatory fake news in Indonesia and found it was several times higher than that of ordinary news.
“Indonesians love to talk and share stories. But unfortunately a lot of them can’t distinguish between facts and lies,” the Indonesian communications scholar Deddy Mulyana said in the report.
Efforts to make journalism more credible globally have been focused on discrediting unsubstantiated news and rumors, an effort that carries a risk of censorship, particularly when spearheaded by federal governments. In Southeast Asia, for example, several mythbusting efforts are coming from governments that don’t have strong track records on press freedoms.
Indonesian has announced several initiatives against fake news. Malaysia and Singapore both have debunking initiatives: sebenarnya.my (sebenarnya means “actually” in Bahasa Malaysia) and the “Factually” section of the Singapore government website. (Meanwhile, last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went on a defensive tirade slamming foreign reports of his country’s civil rights record as “fake news” at an international awards ceremony organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.)
This isn’t something that can be fixed top-down, many warn, or by journalists alone.
“There’s only so much the media can do,” said Tekwani, the social media scholar. “The younger generation should be trained right from school to be critical thinkers, and how to be ‘visually literate’ and read an image on a news site. Until that happens, it’s going to be a never-ending problem.”