Webinar on “Moderating Social Media Communities – Issues and Challenges (Session 2)”

In this webinar, Mr Phát Lê, Mr Wahyu Dhyatmika and Mr Noppatjak Attanon explored the issue of content moderation on digital news media platforms and how policies can be formulated and implemented to moderate sensitive and controversial topics while balancing different moral, ethical, and cultural standards.

Balancing the Free Speech Tightrope: Moderating Social Media in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, 30 March 2022 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar titled “Moderating Social Media Communities – Issues and Challenges (Session 2)” which featured presentations by chief executive officers and editors from Southeast Asian digital news platforms and moderated by Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong (Resident Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Wahyu introduced his presentation titled “Approaching information quality and content moderation”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Wahyu Dhyatmika, Chief Executive Officer for Info Media Digital, the digital arm of Tempo Media Group in Indonesia, shared how his organisation has seen much misinformation infiltrating conversations on social media. For example, recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of health misinformation being viralled. He noted that some websites that spread fake information used similar fonts and formats to disguise themselves as legitimate digital news outlets that target government or public officials, hence creating confusion among users. Mr Wahyu highlighted one example of a website that used the format of an official statement together with a picture of Indonesian President Jokowi to impersonate legitimate news. As a result, the public finds it difficult to distinguish between real and fake news. Mr Wahyu said that some of the sources of disinformation come from irresponsible parties whose intention is to create confusion and polarise society.

Mr Wahyu also stated that whenever Tempo publishes controversial news stories, they often receive heavy backlash from netizens who directly target their account, even though they are a respected and credible news organisation with more than 50 years of experience. These critics give negative feedback and one-star reviews about their platform on Google Play. As an independent media, Tempo is not immune from such criticisms about its news reports, which is part and parcel of being on social media platforms.

To conclude his presentation, Mr Wahyu talked about some of Tempo Digital’s initiatives to tackle mis- and disinformation. Other than collaborating with social media platforms, other media outlets and civil society organisations to fact-check potential mis- and disinformation, Tempo also took the initiative to create smaller chatgroups on the Telegram platform that focus on specific topics such as lifestyle and climate change to connect with its readers and create meaningful conversations. Readers who join these groups have the opportunity to chat with the editors on topics of interest, who can use this platform to clarify and fact-check any fake news or information that readers may come across.

Mr Noppatjak introduced his presentation titled “Thailand Media Freedom”. He then talked about the current challenges faced by Thai newsgroups over the past few years. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Noppatjak Attanon is the Editor-in-Chief for workpointTODAY, an online news publisher with more than 10 million followers in Bangkok, Thailand. He spoke about the difficulties faced by Thai media in the country’s current political climate. Thai journalists are often unable to report on what is going on in the country; they self-censor because of fear of backlash from the government which uses tools such as sedition, media shutdowns and legal restrictions to prevent journalists from speaking up.

Thus, Thai journalists face a dilemma – whether to focus on less controversial non-political news such as stories about celebrities, lifestyle or animals which may please the authorities but are not liked by the audience who want hard-hitting news, or to publish stories that will please the audience but incur the wrath of Thai authorities. Mr Noppatjak stated that human rights activists and journalists have been sent to military camps for certain periods if they spoke up, as well as forced disappearances. There is also the National Council for Peace and Order which implements laws on media freedom, and tools that the government apply to restrict gateways to Internet access.

Another issue that Thai media face is obtaining sufficient revenue to survive. Mr Noppatjak highlighted that Facebook’s most engaged videos are on coffee, controversies, and cats and dogs. A number of the audience enjoy such videos because they know that they are unable to discuss serious matters. Furthermore, social media platforms also promote such content. Media organisations such as workpointTODAY publish via social media platforms which generate a steady income stream from such content. Hence, Thai journalists face another dilemma, which is the need to produce non-political, entertaining content to generate revenue for the company versus producing important journalistic news that may not attract sufficient viewership. Mr Noppatjak shared the difficulty of allocating sufficient resources to create hard-hitting content due to the current business model and audience preferences. His media organization tried to be innovative in creating content with visualization and cutting-edge infographics but that did not bring in sufficient income for sustainability. The Thai media industry is also not spared from the financial consequences due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Phát Lê shared the risk and rewards of using Western social media platforms by Vietnamese news agencies (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Phát Lê is the Multimedia Editor of Zing News in Vietnam and has been responsible for managing and building Zing News’ YouTube channel over the past five years. He is also experienced in managing other social media platforms.

Mr Phát started by giving an overview of the various Vietnamese news companies that utilised social media platforms to publish their content. Facebook is the most popular while YouTube is favoured for video sharing and archiving, as well as live streaming. They are also experimenting with other platforms such as TikTok or Spotify to capture younger audiences. Using such social media platforms enables news organisations to increase their exposure to readers, especially youths, which positively improves the image of the newsroom and increases revenue. He also noted that more than half of the Vietnamese population use social media to read news stories, and more than one-third do so to monitor trending chatter among the masses.

However, there are also risks from using these platforms, one of which is the unpredictable algorithm which can affect the number of views of news content from the media organisation, thus impacting its income stream. Using social media platforms exposes Vietnamese newsrooms to harmful unfiltered comments by readers such as hate speech, “anti-regime” and sexually explicit content, which could lead to legal repercussions such as fines or licence termination. Vietnamese news organisations also face implicit and explicit pressure from the government to control and censor readers’ comments.

Mr Phát ends his presentation by highlighting several case studies of the different news agencies in Vietnam. He noted that legacy newspapers had managed to rebrand themselves by pivoting to social media platforms and attracting large numbers of younger audience. For example, one news agency decided to orientate its YouTube presence into niche entertainment by focusing mostly on lifestyle, which is popular among Vietnamese youths. On the other hand, Zing News is the odd one out in Vietnam with minimal social media presence as it was affected by major algorithm changes in Facebook and YouTube in 2018. Being a subsidiary of Zalo, Vietnam’s Over-The-Top application, Zing decided in 2019 to eschew Western social media “opponents” to avoid being dependent on them. However, in 2022, in a bid to boost viewership and viral content, Zing News may have to return to using these platforms to increase revenue stream.

The Question and Answer segment saw questions on how the companies employ fact-checking tools in relation to the news they published as well as how are the companies managing the comments left on their social media posts.

Moderator Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong interacted with speakers Mr Phát Lê, Mr Wahyu Dhyatmika and Mr Noppatjak Attanon during the webinar. About 90 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)