Impact of disinformation on democracy in Asia

A woman wearing a face mask uses on her mobile phone while walking along the street at Khao San Road during lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic in Thailand on August 28, 2021 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto)NO USE FRANCE
Editor's note:

An earlier version of Maiko Ichihara’s policy brief included a different screenshot of the most influential Russian accounts on Twitter. This has now been corrected.

The nature of the problem

In Asia and around the world, disinformation campaigns — perpetrated by foreign actors seeking to shore up power at home and weaken their competitors abroad and by domestic actors seeking political advantage — are increasingly putting pressure on democratic societies. This pressure manifests through several pathways.

  • Democratic societies rest on the idea that the truth is knowable and that citizens can discern and use it to govern themselves. Because disinformation feeds skepticism that there is such a thing as objective truth, it undermines the very foundation of self-government.
  • A frequent tactic of foreign information manipulation campaigns is to amplify the most extreme views within a target society in order to weaken it from within. Meanwhile, domestic purveyors of disinformation often seek to demonize political opponents for electoral advantage. As a result, disinformation frequently drives polarization, making it harder for democratic societies to govern themselves.

Illiberal governments in particular use information manipulation campaigns to dampen the appeal of democracy. This is especially the case for Beijing-backed information operations targeting democratic societies in Asia. By making democracy less attractive to would-be rights activists, autocrats hope to tighten their grip on power at home. But these activities can also depress support for democracy within target societies.

Autocrats generally, and Chinese President Xi Jinping specifically, use these campaigns to broadly undermine liberal norms such as respect for human and political rights, including rights to privacy and expression. This is primarily to create a more enabling environment for Beijing’s illiberal practices at home, but it can have detrimental effects on the rights and freedoms of citizens beyond its borders, even in Asia’s consolidated democracies.

Meanwhile, disinformation spread by domestic political actors can further erode trust, and perhaps ultimately participation, in democratic institutions. It can also lead to intracommunal violence.

Scope of the challenge in Asia

In Japan, as elsewhere, natural disasters and elections have been flashpoints for the spread of information that is false or misleading. Maiko Ichihara documents the spread of Russian propaganda in Japan about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and how these narratives are proliferated by Russian diplomats, domestic conspiracy theorists, and accounts that regularly amplify Chinese government content. Her findings highlight the extent to which foreign and domestic information operations are intertwined, as is the case across many other contexts.

In Malaysia, a combination of actors, often domestic, propagate disinformation in multiple local languages. Nuurrianti Jalli highlights how coordinated information campaigns surrounding elections in Malaysia have made it difficult for Malaysian citizens to make informed decisions about candidates and issues and have been used by leaders to gain and maintain power, contributing to democratic backsliding. She also points to the enactment of legislative measures that give government “a vast power to use to ‘countering disinformation’ to justify restricting freedom of expression,” a development in keeping with a worldwide trend.

Taiwan, which has been ranked as the country most targeted by false information since 2013, faces an onslaught of disinformation from China.Puma Shen illustrates how the Chinese government uses disinformation in combination with other tools — including nontransparent funding and personal ties — to extend its influence. He also highlights Beijing’s efforts to use authentic Taiwanese voices to make its information campaigns more difficult to identify and counter. China deploys such strategies all around the world. As Shen observes, the Taiwanese government implemented a Disinformation Coordination Team in 2018, but although it has been quite effective in some cases, several of its efforts have exposed the limits of government-led (vs. civil society) activity in the information domain.

Thailand, which has had an illiberal internet environment for almost a decade according to multiple watchdog groups, remains a surprisingly vibrant hub of digital activism — offering hope for democratic resilience in the face of disinformation and digital repression.Aim Sinpeng documents three key drivers of disinformation in Thailand: the campaigns of domestic political leaders that seek to attack opposition groups and shape public perceptions of government institutions; the growing influence of China in Thailand’s traditional media and technology landscapes; and the existence of a legal framework that gives state agencies power to exert control over information.

Recommendations for countering disinformation in Asia

A number of recommendations for governments, civil society leaders, and social media platforms emerge from these country assessments. Building resilience to and countering manipulative information campaigns is a whole-of-society endeavor.

  • Recognizing limits on what government can do in the information space, civil society should play a prominent role in combatting disinformation in Asia. To this end, universities should facilitate the sharing of data and analysis software among trusted researchers. Nongovernmental organizations should build resilience to disinformation by working to improve media literacy. Philanthropists should invest in projects that support the study of emerging good practices in Asian contexts and foster vibrant, independent, investigative media. Because civil society leaders are often targets of disinformation campaigns, special attention should be paid to providing them with resources and training to strengthen their capacity to conduct their work.
  • Recognizing that foreign information manipulation is a national security challenge, affected governments should expand resources devoted to disinformation analysis. Working together with civil society researchers, policymakers should raise the level of awareness of these disinformation campaigns by exposing them and sharing examples publicly. Civil society organizations could use social technologies, like games or other apps, to raise awareness of the challenge.
  • Policymakers in countries like Taiwan, where the Chinese government uses opaque investments as a tool of influence, should establish policies that promote greater financial transparency.
  • Major social media platforms operating in Asia should dedicate additional resources to content moderation in local languages. The platforms should collaborate where possible and appropriate with democratic governments operating under rule of law principles and be wary of collaboration with those governments that are less than wholly free so as not to become an instrument of repression. With that in mind, platforms should be more transparent about the content moderation requests they receive from state actors, how they respond to those requests, and on what basis.
  • Democratic governments should be aware that the measures they adopt to address disinformation at home may be used to justify rights restrictions in less free environments. This should not stop democratic governments from legislating entirely, but it should inform their thinking.
  • Democratic governments and civil society actors in Asia and around the world should share lessons learned and exchange examples of good practice. This could take place through formal channels and through informal networks of researchers and activists facing similar challenges.