OPINION: The battle against online misinformation in Asia

by Jeff Paine | Asia Internet Coalition
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 14:49 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The sign of Anti-Fake News center is pictured in Bangkok, Thailand, November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Patpicha Tanakasempipat

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To counter online misinformation, many Asian governments have turned to legislation, but what’s needed is a whole-of-society response that is likely to be more effective

Jeff Paine is the managing director of Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association that seeks to promote the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region.

Misinformation is a complex social issue that predates the advent of the Internet and social media. However, with the rising prevalence of sharing information online, misinformation poses new challenges. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the abundance of pandemic-related information online can make determining accurate and credible information sources even more challenging.

While there are many approaches to addressing the issue of misinformation, including collaborating with industry, news organisations, and civil society for practical initiatives to deal with misinformation online, many governments in Asia have instead turned to legislation as a solution.

Several Southeast Asia nations, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam have recently passed laws against fake news. These laws often grant broad power to the government and lack transparency in how decisions are made. The laws are open to misuse or abuse – to silence dissent and opposition, especially during elections – and can impact the economy by stifling innovation.

A whole-of-society approach

Many experts have argued that blunt legislation is not the most effective solution to this complex issue, given the scale of the internet, and the difficulty and subjectivity of discerning whether information is “true” or “false”.

Instead, a long-term multi-stakeholder approach is needed. This includes a commitment to digital, media and information literacy, including critical thinking skills, which is vital to dealing with the issue of online misinformation in a sustainable manner.

Digital education must be built into the school curriculum from the earliest years and become as commonplace in the classroom as math or science. Stakeholders should also work together to develop targeted programs for more vulnerable groups such as the elderly, and communities that are coming online for the first time.

Similarly, supporting independent journalists and fact-checkers ensures that citizens have access to important context and counter narratives to enable them to make informed decisions about what to read and trust online. Funding and training for journalists should be part of a whole-of-society response.


Internet companies continue to partner and invest in protecting the integrity of online conversations

Over the years, internet companies have developed initiatives to combat misinformation, often in partnerships with others across the information ecosystem, such as civil society and journalists. These include establishing and maintaining fact-checking programmes, conducting research, and investing in the development and rollout of digital literacy training to millions of people.

There are also processes and product features to prevent the spread of misinformation on online platforms, as well as wide-ranging policies that cover some of the most harmful content types.

Internet companies have also invested in tools for users, organisations, and governments to “flag” online content they believe is inappropriate, and use a combination of reports from users, human oversight and artificial intelligence to identify and remove such content.

Some platforms have information notices that give users more context and a wider variety of authoritative sources to enable them to apply critical thinking to the information they see online.

The case of Australia

Instead of legislation that could impact freedom of expression, access to information, and potentially stifle innovation, governments should look towards initiatives and mechanisms including self-regulation, that take into consideration the complexities of the issue and provide the flexibility needed to deal with a constantly-evolving challenge like misinformation.

The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, released in February, was the result of a public consultation process led by the country’s digital industry, with active input from the government. The signatories to the voluntary and self-regulatory Code commit to safeguards to protect Australians against online misinformation and disinformation.

The Code is outcome-based, which means that signatories are able to implement measures appropriate to their respective platforms. In May, the signatories published their inaugural transparency reports under the Code, where they outlined how they protect Australians from misinformation online, as well as statistical information of actions taken so far in combating misinformation on their various platforms.

In other parts of Asia, we are seeing successful multi-stakeholder approaches with government, digital platforms, and non-profit groups working together to fight disinformation by raising awareness about misinformation, promoting digital literacy, and establishing fact-checking programmes.

The way forward

Blunt legislation is unlikely to effectively address a highly complex and nuanced problem in the long term. Instead, ‘fake news’ legislations are likely to harm freedom of expression and speech, and dampen public debate and exchange of ideas, information, and knowledge – a fundamental feature of successful digital economies.

To ensure that the internet remains a safe place for innovation, knowledge, and business to thrive, industry, government and policy makers, media and publishers, academia, and users themselves must be part of the solution.

Promising, alternative solutions have emerged, which range from jointly-developed technology tools that reduce the prevalence and impact of misinformation, efforts to promote media and digital literacy, to the establishment of fact check programmes and voluntary codes, must underpin the way forward in this battle against misinformation.

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