This final session of the online workshop on ‘Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia’ discussed the new opportunities and risks arising from the rising regulation of online political speech in Southeast Asia.
MEDIA, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY PROGRAMME
Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia
Friday, 27 November 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Social Media, Polarisation, and Democracy in Southeast Asia”. The webinar is part of an online workshop on ‘Social Media and Polarization in Southeast Asia’. Moderated by Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), the webinar featured the insights of Dr Jasmine Chia (Thai Enquirer), Dr Abel Da Silva (Centro de Estudos Estrategicos de Timor-Leste (CESTIL) – RENETIL), Mr Ravio Patra (Westminster Foundation for Democracy) and Mr Samuel Cabbuag (University of the Philippines Diliman). The speakers discussed the new opportunities and risks brought about by the rising regulation of online political speech in Southeast Asia, and the ramifications of deepening polarization, disinformation and conflict in societies.
The webinar began with Ms Jasmine Chia’s presentation on the “Meme Culture and the Politicisation of Thai Youth” following the rise in youth protests in Thailand. She said that the burgeoning use of internet meme culture reflects increased censorship in the country and what foreign commentators have called ‘the sheer absurdity’ of Thai politics. Ms Chia noted that meme culture, in addition to its function as a secret protest language, lies at the heart of Thai youth politics to express anti-government sentiments. She drew parallels between meme culture and the tradition of Thai word-play. In exploring the relationship between censorship and mobilisation, Ms Chia emphasised that the rising deployment of internet memes among the young Thai protesters should not be understood simply in terms of functionalist outcomes (‘mobilisation’). More than that, the flourishing meme culture has also become integral to the ongoing creation of new Thai youth identities. For instance, memes depicting ‘protesting dinosaurs’ reflect the youth’s rejection of the conservative, older elites’ longstanding belief in the ideological framework of the ‘Nation, Religion, and King’. Ms Chia suggested that Thai youth will most likely follow the cyber-realist’ path as evinced in the case of Hong Kong youth protests, where power structures will remain fundamentally unchanged while Thai young people will become more politically educated and engaged.
Dr Abel Da Silva’s presentation, “Timor-Leste: Social Media use in a crisis-stricken country (2017-2020)”, considered the interaction between social media and the recent political crises in the country. In his overview of the context of Timor-Leste, Dr Da Silva noted that the population of Timor-Leste has a strong preference for oral and face-to-face communication, but the rising access to video communications through social media platforms has recently intensified its use and produced unintended ramifications. One of such ramifications is the rise of hate speech and fake news that have deepened the political divisions in the post-conflict society. Dr Da Silva explained how divisions in Timor-Leste society could be broadly characterised by the social separations between ‘nobles’ and ‘commoners’; the regional divide between the western and eastern parts of the country and political division between traitors and nationalists, and recently between opportunists and ex-resistance supporters, which are further intensified with social media usage. This is largely due to the ability of social media platforms such as Facebook in facilitating the sharing of content at almost real-time basis as well as filtering content for the individual-user that creates an echo-chamber among like-minded users. Dr De Silva concluded his presented by pointing to the rise of ‘social-media’ wars between the increasing number of actors in Timor-Leste: beyond the politically divided groups within the country, the government and international human rights organisations are also implicated in the regulation of disinformation and misinformation via social media platforms.
Mr Ravio Patra’s presentation on “Uncharted territories: cyber policy and social media weaponization in the context of Indonesia’s democracy” discussed the shrinking civic space on the internet, the weaponization of social media and the ‘buzzer’ industrial complex and the disconnect between the laws and their enforcement in Indonesia. Mr Patra said the ‘vagueness’ and the ‘flexibility’ of cyber policies in Indonesia have resulted in an increased and sometimes unfounded criminalisation of citizens, especially political dissents, activists, journalists and academic scholars, on the grounds of circulating defamation, pornography and hate speech. He argued that the implementation of cyber policies and regulations have adversely affected individuals dealing with politicians (e.g., political dissents and activists). Undue distress and increased threats have also been experienced by victims of sexual violence and harassments, as well as the occurrence of revenge pornography. Many of these victims are fearful of speaking out against their abusers. In light of these incidents, Mr Patra emphasised the need to not only recognise but also, more importantly, to grant agency to key actors in the enactment of cyber-related policies and legislative bills. In closing, Mr Patra suggested that a softer approach, such as digital literacy and education programmes, would be more helpful in creating a digitally-inclusive landscape in Indonesia guided by a more harmonious co-existence of multiple perspectives and ideas.
Mr Samuel Cabbuag shed his insights on the increasingly fraught relationships between social media and democracy under President Duterte in the Philippines. Mr Cabbuag drew on the recent case of the ABS-CBN network’s (a Philippine commercial television and new media network) state-backed shutdown to examine how social media can foster both more organic and inorganic networked intersections that produce a polarised public sphere in the Philippines. The incident demonstrated how the shutdown is both a democracy and entertainment issue that had affected and brought together a diverse array of actors spanning from activists to entertainers to converge on cross-cutting issues concerning cyber-security and freedom of speech. Apart from this case, Mr Cabbuag also noted the burgeoning rise of internet shutdowns in the Philippines in recent years, a bulk of these traced to the Philippines police and military personnel. In conclusion, Mr Cabbuag suggested there is a pressing need to consider developing new ways of filtering and correcting disinformation rather than relying on internet shutdowns to stem the unbridled circulation of fake news, hate speech and other dis- and misinformation.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues which include the transformation in the levels of freedom of speech in pre- and post-Suharto Indonesia; the role of the government in regulating freedom of speech and ways forward; and the possibilities for cross-national influence on digital information issues within Southeast Asia.