This webinar examined how heightened geopolitical rivalry in Southeast Asia is playing out on social media platforms and being shaped by technology and cyber policy.
MEDIA, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY PROGRAMME
Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia
Thursday, 26 November 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar titled “Geopolitical Rivalry and Social Media Polarization in Southeast Asia.” The webinar was the first session of a four-part online workshop on “Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia.” Ms Elina Noor (Asia Society Policy Institute), Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong (ISEAS), Dr William Choong (ISEAS), and Dr Quinton Temby (ISEAS) presented their insights on how the US-China geopolitical rivalry and its competing narratives have influenced social media platforms and protests movements in Southeast Asia, and expressed optimism on how the region can navigate this political landscape. The webinar was moderated by Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Media, Technology and Society (MTS) Programme at ISEAS, Dr Benjamin Loh.
The webinar began with Opening Remarks on the online workshop by Dr Benjamin Loh. Dr Loh said that while polarization tends to be examined along national lines, it is also a widespread phenomenon that worsens intolerance and discrimination, diminishes societal trust, and increases violence throughout society. This has resulted in the growth of nationalist and populist movements, and the disenchantment of young people, hampering the stability and cohesion in Southeast Asia and beyond. Further, digital technologies and social media have magnified and exacerbated these divisions by enabling echo chambers, fake news and information bubbles.
Ms Elina Noor offered her observations on the impact of geopolitical rivalry in the technological space – or “geotechnological” rivalry – on Southeast Asia. She said that the US-China technological contestation has affected Southeast Asia in multiple arenas. They include the competing dominance of software and mobile apps, industry investment strategies and development of technology-related international norms, standards and laws. In this backdrop, Ms Noor noted that Southeast Asia’s developmentally-driven pursuit of technological progress is now more complex. With continued policy focus on developing digital infrastructure and ASEAN’s digital connectivity agenda, challenges of high capital requirements and infrastructure costs may encourage collaborative initiatives with China and the US. She appealed for Southeast Asian countries to look beyond the US-China geotechnological rivalry, and exercise agency in deciding their own technological pathways.
Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong examined how US-China rivalry has influenced social media in Vietnam. He argued that the deeply entrenched notion of China’s rise as a threat to the stability in Southeast Asia was largely influenced by existing Western-led media reports and surveys shaping the discourse on US-China rivalry. He analyzed several examples of how public sentiment has manifested on social media in Vietnam. He also highlighted the divergent reactions, both appreciation and criticism, towards Facebook posts made by the United States and China embassies in Vietnam respectively. He said that it remains unclear how China will promote its narratives on social media in Vietnam and conversely how anti-China sentiments will be further leveraged by the United States and Vietnam.
Dr William Choong surveyed the impact of competing Sino-American narratives on online platforms on Southeast Asia and proposed directions of the future of online political debate in the region. To avoid becoming the casualty of systemic rivalry between the United States and China, Dr Choong echoed Ms Noor’s presentation and said that ASEAN member states should retain agency to navigate the geopolitical landscape. He listed three areas where competing narratives have occurred online: militarization of the South China Sea; the Chinese Communist Party and China’s ascendancy; and Huawei and 5G systems as surveillance technologies. As social media platforms of the United States and China become parallel echo chambers, he highlighted the necessity of critical thinking and agency, and dependence on authoritative and credible sources of media and information.
In the final presentation, Dr Quinton Temby analyzed the impact of China’s rise on social media activism in Thailand and Indonesia. He asserted that the anxiety over the rise of China in Southeast Asia has fed into localized protest movements, organically driven by emergent transnational activist linkages. Anti-Chinese sentiment has been weaponized in Indonesia by domestic political opposition parties using encoded terms (e.g. asing, aseng and penjajahan) and encrypted chat groups. Analysis of social media mentions of proxy keywords “TKAChina” and “Cukong” revealed undercurrent tensions that led to the Omnibus Law protests. For Thailand, anti-China sentiment was featured as a proxy to critique the local regime through the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance on social media. Dr Temby noted the growth of potentially greater transnational linkages over the issue of China between protest movements in Southeast Asia.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer segment where the panel engaged with the audience on a variety of issues. They included the observations on how Southeast Asia can navigate the US-China techno-nationalism; whether anti-Chinese sentiments featured in local politics within Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have transcended into other southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore; and understanding Vietnam’s rhetoric behind the government’s recent threat to shut down Facebook unless more anti-government content is removed from the social media platform.