Social media is having an ever increasing impact on politics and everyday life. This Regional Social and Cultural Studies (RSCS) workshop examined the key drivers of change in the social media landscape over the past decade, and discussed issues contributing to the rapidly shifting information societies across Southeast Asia.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Thursday, 12 December 2019 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a full-day workshop titled “From Grassroots Activism to Disinformation: Social Media’s Impact on Southeast Asian Society”. The workshop was divided into three panels, and several speakers were invited to give their presentations on issues of social media – ranging from internet censorship to political polarization – in various Southeast Asian countries. The workshop was attended by around 100 participants with diverse backgrounds such as academics, civil servants and members of the public.
Mr Christian Echle, Director of the Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, began the workshop with his welcoming remarks. He noted that although social media has brought about significant conveniences in connecting people, current discourses on social media have been dominated by its negative impacts such as disinformation and hate speech. Dr Ross Tapsell (Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), co-organizer of this event, followed with his opening remarks. He commented that social media was initially viewed positively in terms of its ability to support democratic change. Over the last decade, however, social media has become a key driver of authoritarianism and repression, and disinformation and fake news have created polarized societies instead.
The first panel of the day was titled “Social Media and Mainland Southeast Asian Regimes”. Dr Aim Sinpeng (Lecturer at the University of Sydney) acted as moderator. Dr Janjira Sombatpoonsiri (Assistant Professor at Thammasat University) spoke first on “Securitizing ‘Fake News’: Regime, Conflicts and Information Warfare in Thailand”. She argued that despite serious concerns regarding disinformation in Thailand, policy responses of the regime have been to securitize “fake news” in order to undermine anti-establishment forces and consolidate the position of traditional elites as the only arbiter of truth. Mr Dien Luong (Assistant Managing Editor of Zing News) argued that social media is an the ally or partner-in-crime of civil society in Vietnam. He said that the state is wary of the flow of information that could challenge and undermine its rule, and has taken actions like deploying a cyber unit known as “Force 47” to deal with “toxic content” and introducing a cybersecurity law to punish dissidents. Mr Mun Vong (PhD candidate at Griffith University) then spoke about “From Democratization of Information to Disinformation” in Cambodia. He argued that the rapid growth of social media has led to democratization of information, and that in an authoritarian context characterized by weak rule of law, the threat to social media is not the regulation but the regulator. However, there have been instances of scandals and disinformation created by social media, with both the incumbent government and opposition claiming to be victims.
The second panel, “Social Media in Island Southeast Asian Democracies”, was moderated by Professor Marco Buente from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. The first speaker, Ms Pamela Combinido, spoke about reclaiming the digital public sphere in the Philippines. She argued that the Philippine economy has created a generation of tech-savvy millennials who have the skills to support digital innovations, including online disinformation. Those behind fake news are often from creative industries and have the resources to craft the right image for politicians. However, social media also acts as a tool for mobilizing overseas Filipino workers to participate in political activities through their social media platforms. Dr Muninggar Saraswati (Lecturer at the Swiss German University) then spoke about the rise of political buzzers in Indonesia, which could refer to influencers, cyber troops or cyber armies. She noted that the rise of political buzzers has emerged alongside fake news and disinformation, and this has been particularly evident in the 2014 presidential elections. The third presentation saw Dr Niki Cheong (Lecturer at the University of Nottingham) speak about social media in Malaysian politics. He argued that disinformation carried out by cyber troopers has largely been a result of the government’s response to the “opposition playground”. However, those involved in social and democratic movements have begun to reclaim their space through private chat spaces, and this has been effective in the Bersih protests and 2018 general elections.
The final panel saw Dr Tapsell moderating on the topic of “Evolving Social Media Landscapes”. Dr Natalie Pang (Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies and Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore) spoke about activism and civic engagement through digital repertoires in Singapore. She noted that citizens have been able to switch between social media platforms for activism and participation, such as blogs, Facebook and instant messaging platforms. Memes, hashtags and satire have also become a vocabulary for civic and political talk. Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw (Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) then spoke about how authors and readers are dynamically involved in the production, reproduction, circulation and maintenance of fake news. He observed that the development of fake news in Myanmar was explicitly tied to the post-2010 political transition, where the liberalization of media led to social media becoming a platform for political discussion. Professor Buente then compared social media and politics across Southeast Asia. He argued that the context and impacts of misinformation varies greatly across countries, and depends on factors like the freedom of press and internet, the state of education and development, and regime type. Professor Buente concluded with an overview of initiatives that Southeast Asian governments have taken in targeting social media – including the blocking and removing of misinformation, arresting of buzzers and banning of movements.
Closing the workshop with her final remarks, Dr Aim commended the wide range of perspectives and topics pertaining to social media that were covered in the workshop. She noted that the presentations would culminate into an edited volume to be published by ISEAS, and Dr Aim encouraged the audience to look out for the volume when it is released. She concluded that the problem of disinformation will not be resolved easily and requires the concerted efforts of different facets of government and society.