Disinformation campaigns have entered the agenda of many states around the globe. As countries continue to introduce solutions, there may emerge a gap among various countries in terms of their capacities to respond to disinformation campaigns. As disinformation campaigns enter the agenda of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) as a security concern, inequalities in member countries’ approach to, apprehensions about, and competence to counter disinformation campaigns may impede regional collaboration on the issue.
Countries in Southeast Asia have different disinformation landscapes and they have context-specific fractures that are vulnerable to exploitation via disinformation campaigns. More important, in different countries, disinformation campaigns are carried out by different entities including syndicates, terrorists, and, at times, by government bodies.
To illustrate, Myanmar’s authorities have been under fire for claims that the Myanmar military leveraged hate-speech and disinformation to kindle religious and ethnic divisions. Attempts to incite hate against Rohingya and “justify the killing of thousands of Rohingya” are cited as supporting examples. Indonesia, on the other hand, has battled with the Saracen syndicate, which was producing “fake news” out of monetary motivations, and the “self-proclaimed cyber jihadist network” Muslim Cyber Army, which allegedly disseminated “fake news” and “hate speech” to disturb ethnic and religious harmony. In Malaysia, the “fake news” label was allegedly used to obscure the information space. Some claimed that the previous government run by former Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition ill-used the term “fake news” to sideline critique. Others argued that the former BN government introduced the debated Anti-Fake News Act to silence allegations over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption case and elevate BN’s chances of success in the elections.
Southeast Asian countries are not embarking on the battle against disinformation on an equal footing. In addition to the disparities mentioned above, some states are better equipped in human capital, infrastructure, technology, and other fundamentals to deal with this problem while some countries are looking at a long list of investments and requirements. Given this discrepancy, moving forward, some countries may become breeding grounds for disinformation, serving as markets or test-beds for outsourced disinformation campaigns, while others are advancing in the fight against disinformation. At the same time, some countries may seek solutions with particular care for freedom of speech, while others may restrict the information sphere within their borders and consider surveillance, censorship, and even firewalls as solutions to the problem. Arguably, we are already witnessing the emergence of these trends.
ASEAN and the European Example
The European Union (EU) established the East StratCom Task Force in 2015 primarily to counter Russian disinformation campaigns. Russian disinformation campaigns are also a central concern to the NATO StratCom Center of Excellence. Besides, the European Union and NATO are collaborating under the roof of the recently launched European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which has disinformation campaigns as one of its focuses. While all member states do not attend to these collaborative efforts and there is room for improvement, these organizations set an early framework for collaboration.
It is hard to speak of collaboration at a similar scale in Southeast Asia. ASEAN released a report (Annex 5) with a preliminary framework for countering disinformation campaigns in May 2018. The report suggested four areas of focus: “education and awareness,” “community and ground up participation,” “detection and response,” and “norms and guidelines.” While the meeting and report may be considered as a promising step, there are impediments to tangible collaborative initiatives in the region.
As illustrated above through the examples of Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia, countries in the region have different experiences concerning disinformation campaigns. They have context-specific fractures that are vulnerable to exploitation via disinformation campaigns. Besides, the countries in the region place different weights on the problem. For instance, Singapore held Select Committee hearings and released a report that recommends future steps in tackling disinformation campaigns. In Malaysia, the new Pakatan Harapan government pushed a bill to revoke the Anti-Fake News Law after its election victory; however, the Senate stalled the repeal of the act. And remember that in some countries governmental bodies themselves are accused of leveraging disinformation. This difference in disinformation landscapes may impede the identification of shared concerns, much less an agreement on concrete actions.
Furthermore, the EU and NATO’s efforts against disinformation campaigns, arguably, congregate nations that are concerned about the acts of a common adversary, Russia. Unlike Europe, where a number of countries regard Russia as the common adversary, there is not a collective stance against an agreed foe in Southeast Asia. Indeed, differences in ties among various nations in the region and between countries in the region and others may not allow any breathing space to any mutual accusations against a state and may even prove costly for diplomatic relations among countries in the region.
Deliberate use and dissemination of disinformation is a global problem that cannot be contained only by local means. There may be countries that are not open to cooperation for various reasons, stretching from competition to differences in priorities, and there are impediments to cooperation in the region. Nevertheless, issue-based, small-scale engagements may cultivate an atmosphere for cooperation and pave the way for a more encompassing collaboration.
When setting the grounds for collaboration, it is important to take the disparity in countries’ resources to tackle the problem into account and invest in capacity building and resource sharing schemes. Also, a primary step in cracking the barriers to collaboration is the identification of intersecting aims, concerns, and vulnerabilities as well as clashes in approaches among countries in the region. This would not only provide a clear view of the areas for cooperation but also allow Southeast Asian countries to ponder the ways in which the contrasting approaches could be negotiated based on a solid outline of the conflicts. Meanwhile, it is imperative to amplify international cooperation and exchanges between non-governmental efforts to tackle disinformation.
Gulizar Haciyakupoglu is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.