Interviews | Society | Southeast Asia

Aim Sinpeng on the Dynamics of Social Media in Southeast Asia

“The Internet and social media’s arrival in the region have led to unprecedented levels of grassroots activism across societies.”

Aim Sinpeng on the Dynamics of Social Media in Southeast Asia

Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) during campaigning for national elections in July 2013. The polls marked the arrival of social media as an important factor in Cambodian politics.

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

Over the past decade, Southeast Asian domestic politics has been transformed by the spread of mobile internet access and the meteoric rise of social media platforms. Today the region boasts four of the top eight Facebook user bases in the world, and social media has had a profound effect on society and politics.

Initially, the rise of digital communication tools development empowered those seeking political change, in places like Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. But over time, social media has also revealed its darker side: as a source of disinformation that has muddled up notions of objective truth and swamped users with torrents of information.

A recent edited volume, “From Grassroots Activism to Disinformation: Social Media in Southeast Asia” (Singapore, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020), examines the dynamics of social media as they have played out in eight of the region’s 11 nations. One of the book’s two co-editors, Dr. Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, spoke with The Diplomat about the far-reaching impacts that social media is having on Southeast Asian politics – and what it might mean in the years to come.

Over the past decade, views of the internet’s political potential seem to have swung from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism: from the view of the internet as a “liberation technology” to a view of it as a mass purveyor of “fake news” and disinformation. How do you explain such a massive shift? Where do you come down on this question?

The internet has always been a double-edged sword but we were fascinated by its promise to drive progressive change. It took us until the U.S. presidential election in 2016 to realize how naive we were to believe the dark side of the internet wouldn’t materialize. The truth is, the dark side has always been there.

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It’s worth noting however that we did not become pessimistic about the power of the internet, and especially social media, all at the same time. Southeast Asia was late in this pessimistic turn. It took the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 for the region to see the Internet and social media’s impact on politics and society more critically.

In the opening chapter of the book, Ross Tapsell and yourself cite some of the examples where the mobilizational power of social media has genuinely resulted in positive change. How have Southeast Asian publics used the internet to bring about positive change?

The Internet and social media’s arrival in the region have led to unprecedented levels of grassroots activism across societies, especially in authoritarian regimes. This happened despite increasing information controls. In Myanmar, for example, the arrival of Facebook has led to an emergence of a networked LGBT communities and facilitated a burgeoning LGBT rights movement. One of the largest LGBT groups, & Proud, has nearly 100,000 likes on its community page. The rise of the LGBT virtual communities and their offline activism could not have happened without Facebook.

The successes of some of the grassroots activism in countries with very repressive internet regimes like Vietnam and Thailand are worth noting. Spontaneous grassroots resistance to the tree felling plan in Hanoi in 2015 on Facebook led to rare anti-government protests that eventually reverted the government’s decision. The youth-led mass protests in Thailand that have been going on since July 2020 actually had its beginning during the country’s military dictatorship in the late 2010s. Social media fueled activism challenged and continues to challenge the legitimacy of political regimes, especially autocratic ones.

Given the increased power of the internet and social media, it is perhaps no surprise that many Southeast Asian governments are seeking to restrict these technologies. Most recently, Vietnam’s government threatened to shut down Facebook if it didn’t remove politically sensitive posts. What approaches have the region’s governments taken to meet the political challenges posed by social media? Do you see commonalities?

What is unique about how Southeast Asian governments respond to increasing digital activism is its focus on regulating against fake news. The region is a pioneer in anti-fake news legislation, a specific form of countering misinformation that many human rights groups worry are signs of state abuses of power. Part of this reason why there seems to be a legislative and regulatory focus on curbing misinformation is that governments in region recognize the uneven power relationship between them and tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. Having legislation that seeks to define what constitutes “harmful information” is one way these governments try to regain some power over their cyberspace.

Given the centrality of social media in most Southeast Asian nations today, small changes in policy on the part of companies like Google and Facebook can have a huge impact on civic life in the region. What risks does this carry? How should these companies best conceptualize their responsibilities in Southeast Asia?

Tech companies are increasingly aware that their global approach to solving wicked problems like misinformation or hate speech are not working well. Facebook in particular is moving towards “glocalizing” their solutions – relying more on regional and country experts to help alleviate some of these sticky problems. Having said that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major setback on these companies’ attempt to be more attuned to local contexts of the information problem as they have had to rely more than ever on their algorithms rather than human experts. I hope they can get back on track in focusing on empowering their local and regional partners who understand the local contexts from which information issues such as misinformation, coordinated inauthentic behavior and hate speech originate.

How do you conceptualize the tension between the business interests of big tech companies (and their desire for market access), and their role as guardians of the public sphere? Can these two goals be reconciled?

I think the answer will depend on the context. While I think these tech companies will always strive to gain and increase their market access and thus global solutions to problems, they are under increasing scrutiny to ensure their platforms are used for good. The big issue here though is trust: these companies know that their business success will depend greatly on how much people and government trust their platforms. Their platforms run on trust and that trust needs to be earned and maintained and that means the more we, as ordinary users, can continue to demand change to maintain our trust in the platforms, the more these companies have to listen.