Like Trump, These Southeast Asian Countries Are Using 'Fake News' To Devastating Effect

Myanmar's State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (C) arrives for the second anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) ceremony at the Myanmar International Convention Center (MICC) in Naypyidaw on October 15, 2017. (AUNG HTET/AFP/Getty Images)

By Danielle Keeton-Olsen 
October 30, 2017

In the midst of political turmoil, heads of state in Southeast Asia have borrowed the language of the most prominent and outspoken national leader, U.S. President Donald Trump. Fake news has become a convenient cover up for attacks on human rights, democracy and criticism of the government. 

Whether in the name of nationalism or preserving public appearances, Burmese, Filipino and Cambodian government leaders have all directly referenced “fake news” or “alternative facts” since the U.S. president’s inauguration. 

The region already has a scourge of fake local news stories clogging Facebook and messaging apps. But political leaders’ unverified claims and lack of supporting evidence are making it even harder for news outlets and citizens to distinguish the real news from the fake. 

Attacks on Rohingya are “not happening”

The government of Myanmar, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has unrolled a steady stream of denialism on the systematic evictions, rapes and killings of the Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the north. 

Maung Zarni, a Burmese human rights activists, decried Suu Kyi's public rejection of hundreds of rape cases, telling Al Jazeera this month that in this way, the State Counsellor was contributing to the genocide of the Rohingya people. 

Journalists who are publishing photos and reports of the massacre in the Rakhine state say they face harassment and dismissal, both from state bodies and communities on social media, according to reports from Al Jazeera. 

The campaign of denial extended into state television station MNTV, which cut BBC broadcasts at the mention of the Rohingya people. 

Simultaneously, the Yangon-based Myanmar Timesbarely hints at the ongoing crisis, while the cover of Global New Light of Myanmar lauded State Councellor Aun San Suu Kyi’s peace efforts and called her “mum,”as the international community condemned her inability to acknowledge the Rohingya genocide. 

“Duterte Diehard Supporters” and the Philippines’ fake news machine

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte may be criticized abroad for his harsh drug campaign. But within the nation, government leaders and a fervent base of online supporters work tirelessly to cover this image and spread fabricated praise for Duterte from other world leaders. 

Allies of the Duterte government have described thethousands of killings for suspected drug use to the international community as “alternative facts." Acclaimed journalists and opinion writers at the Manila Times have even propagated false reports that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley endorsed Duterte’s presidency and told the international community to end its interventions. 

Anti-government protesters display placards during a rally against extra-judicial killings, inside the state university campus in Manila on October 14, 2017. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

While Philippine leaders spin their own fake news narrative, they encourage and support fiery online groups in their attacks against those critical of the government. 

A group of nationalist fans called the Duterte Diehard Supporters—using the same acronym as the vigilante drug enforcer group Davao Death Squad—roll out dozens of articles and videos lauding Duterte’s leadership. 

Another pro-government online group, the Duterte Cyber Warriors, collects the names of Facebook users who criticize the government and name them purveyors of false information. Their crowdsourced complaints have pushed Facebook to suspend the accounts of television anchor Ed Lingao and The Philippine Daily, which was taken down by the social network three times. 

Cambodia creates evidence to silence opposing voices

At the end of 2016, Cambodia’s Information Minister Khieu Kanharith cautioned journalists against spreading fake news, interpreted both as an admission of the danger of viral Facebook videos and a threat to press freedom. 

Several months later, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on news outlets that Prime Minister Hun Sen chided for spreading fake news and attacking the government, stifling independent radio stations’ broadcasts to the provinces and slapping an exorbitant tax bill on the Cambodia Daily (Disclosure: I was employed by Cambodia Daily between January and September this year.)

Hun Sen regularly quotes the U.S. president’s fake news rhetoric, both to combat some of the rampant fake viral videos but also attack opposition voices, from news outlets to outspoken political analysts

Meanwhile, through the prime minister’s speeches and government leaders’ Facebook pages, the ruling party simultaneously launched a string of color revolution conspiracies, intertwining opposition party leaders with the U.S. government in attempts to overthrow the government. 

With sources of scrutiny hushed, pro-government news outlets built an echo chamber, recirculating videos and claims of unsubstantiated evidence supporting the ruling party’s narrative. A clipped video of opposition leader Kem Sokha’s wonky political speech from 2014 was shared by several major officials, which later fueled treason charges and the midnight arrest of the leader in September. 

How do we know what’s real? 

Citizens of the region are already skeptical of government messages and news stories, because they have been laced with propaganda long before “fake news” became a popular term in the west, said Dr. Masato Kajimoto, a media literacy professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“Putting negative labels and casting doubts on opposing views and inconvenient facts is something many governments have always been doing in this part of the world,” he said. “‘Fake news’ is just another lexicon they have adopted.”

Though many people understand the need for news literacy, Kajimoto said he offers tools to teach the concept through a free massive open online course. For example, readers should think about the mnemonic “IM VAIN” when wondering whether a source is biased. Any sources in a news piece should be “independent,” “multiple,” “verified,” “authoritative,” “informed” and “named.”

Thinking critically about the information provided, rather than the person saying it, is the key to decoding the false or suspect rhetoric throughout Southeast Asia and the world, he said. 

“Trust should not be placed on the producers of information such as journalists but on the facts and evidence reporters include in the story, which should be verifiable by the news audience.”

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