Webinar on “Truth” and Trust in Narratives of Organised Disinformation”

In this webinar, Dr Charmaine Willoughby, Dr Jason Cabañes, Mr Pradipa P. Rasidi and Ms Gita Elsitra explored the narratives of online propaganda from the perspective of the state, its opponents and ordinary consumers and producers of disinformation.


Monday, 22 November 2021 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar moderated by Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja (Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) titled “Truth” and Trust in Narratives of Organised Disinformation”. The webinar is part of the webinar series on “Cyber Troops and Organised Propaganda in Southeast Asia”. The webinar featured the products of Dr Charmaine Willoughby, Dr Jason Cabañes, Mr Pradipa P. Rasidi and Ms Gita Elsitra’s research on online information wars in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Dr Charmaine Willoughby analyses the Philippines’ shifting position in information wars regarding the South China Sea disputes. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Charmaine’s segment focused on how state actors can be both purveyor and consumer of information campaigns, and how opposing online narratives engender different versions of “truth”. She began by offering ways to think about information campaigns. She identifies two ways to view organised propaganda. The first is to treat the cybersphere as a global commons, in which cyberspace offers a democratic space where ideas are transmitted quickly. Adding to the complexity of this approach, any move to regulate the supposed neutrality of cyberspace would be akin to controlling knowledge production. The second approach is to identify the actors that are involved in information campaigns. Based on this actor-focused approach, Dr Charmaine analyses the Philippines’ shifting position in information wars regarding the South China Sea disputes, finding that the lines separating the state’s role as entrepreneur, antipreneur and saboteur of its own position is very thin. Dr Charmaine concluded her segment by posing three questions: Considering the toxic environment that is Facebook, who is authorised to speak in the cybersphere and who is rendered silent? Under what rules should cyberspace be governed? What is the end goal envisioned?

Dr Jason Cabañes examines the social dynamics of Filipinos consuming disinformation campaigns. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Jason’s segment discusses key narratives that Filipinos draw on when engaging with disinformation campaigns on the Martial Law era. He examines the social dynamics of Filipinos consuming such campaigns, including their distorted view of fact-checking fuelled by populist anti-intellectualism, and their openness to pernicious digital influencers who “give voice” to their concerns. He begins his segment by cautioning how we tend to overinflate the problem of technology, specifically social media, while tending to dumb down its users when discussing organised disinformation. Dr Jason then explores how social narratives, in particular deep stories, are weaponised to spread historically distortionist disinformation in the Philippines. He explains how deep stories refer to narratives people tell themselves and how it comprises who they are, what values they hold and their place in society.

One key area explored in his research was: Who consumes such narratives and where do they place such narratives within their lives? Dr Jason shared some findings from online interviews with Manila’s middle class. From this, he learns that some members of the Filipino middle class prefer politicians who are able to hold back the power of the oligarchs. Meanwhile, some are only engaging with political issues on the surface level because of their refusal to consume toxic and stressful narratives and political issues. Hence, these groups do not need to be taught fact-checking, rather they need access to sources of credible facts to check against.

Mr Pradipa P. Rasidi and Ms Gita Elsitra explored how the role of secrecy gives an added dimension to organised disinformation. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Pradipa and Ms Gita’s segment focused on the expanded role of political buzzers in Indonesia, showing how they position themselves as “insiders” of the secret world of politics and their propaganda work as alternative “citizen journalism”, while brokering rumours and conspiracy theories. Mr Pradipa and Ms Gita explored how the role of secrecy gives an added dimension to organised disinformation. By labelling information as “secret”, it complicates the process of verifying disinformation. They argue that this is born out of historical developments; after de-politicisation during Soeharto’s New Order, there is a considerable gap between politicians and ordinary citizens. Indonesians began reading between the lines of politicians’ gestures and actions. This resulted in an environment of secrecy and distrust with regards to the government, the media and the information published from these two sources.

The Question and Answer segment saw questions on the speakers’ opinions over recent political developments in relation to their work. Other questions include what steps can the state and companies take to rid the issues raised by them, and what role can civil society institutions play. For example, Dr Jason recommends more structural and institutional solutions to online disinformation because it is difficult to rely solely on the self-responsibility of the online audience. One reason is that ordinary netizens are potentially up against real experts in paddling such disinformation, and some are even strategists doing it full-time. Another solution offered by the speakers is to build reliable counternarratives against organised disinformation.

69 participants attended the webinar.

Moderator Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja and speakers Dr Charmaine Willoughby, Dr Jason Vincent Cabañes, Ms Gita Elsitra and Mr Pradipa Rasidi interact during the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)