What you need to know
Democracy in the region is facing an unprecedented set of challenges.
Democracy in East Asia is facing unprecedented challenges.
From “online martial law” aimed at critics of the government in the Philippines, to religious exclusivism in Indonesia and pro-China groups peppering Taiwanese social media with disinformation, democracy is under pressure across the region.
In a bid to address these challenges, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) yesterday convened the 2018 East Asia Democracy Forum (EADF), which since its founding in 2013 has sought to advance democratic progress in Asia.
The forum invited speakers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan under the imperative: “Prevent Democratic Backsliding”, a title that reflects the urgency of addressing the pervasive threats facing democracies, both fragile and stable, in East Asia.
As conference opening speaker and TFD President Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) suggested, authoritarian regimes are successfully propagating the narrative that democratic governments are “inefficient, chaotic and sluggish” while their one-party counterparts are “productive, effective and efficient.”
Corruption and inequality within democracies is opening the door for external elements to weaken their stability through disinformation, largely through online sources, which in turn stokes support for extremist viewpoints that previously could not find a platform on mainstream media.
As yesterday’s speakers made clear, “fake news” is the most pervasive threat stable democracies and is being deployed to chip away at citizens' faith in the bastions that maintain democracy’s edifice, freedom of the press and speech, and social and political pluralism.
Disinformation and 'Dutertards'
By nature, disinformation finds its comfortable home in societies that already enjoy some measure of liberalism -- there is little “fake news” as we understand the term in China, for example, just the propaganda put forth by the Communist Party’s propaganda unit.
But in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's determination to echo Donald Trump in declaring all out war with the media is shaking the country's belief in the democratic narrative.
As illustrated by speaker Anthony Q. Esguerra, a multimedia reporter with the online portal of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, INQUIRER.net, President Duterte has laid down the gauntlet to the media over his willingness to weaponize disinformation.
Esguerra cited numerous instances of misinformation gaining traction in the Philippines, including a quote attributed to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (“We must give Duterte space to run his nation”) that was actually sourced from Manila Times columnist Yen Makabenta.
But the the threat is more egregious. As Freedom House has indicated, the Philippines government is, like China, prepared to employ armies of online trolls to exaggerate popular support for government policy and crowd-out contrarian views. This “keyboard army” have earned the badge “Dutertards” for the blind aggression with which they attack their opponents.
Their tactics have met wide success, with Facebook’s viral-enamored algorithm seemingly defenseless against the trolls’s mass complaints against Duterte critics.
Many have had their accounts consequently suspended, notably that of Pinoy Ako Blog administrator Jover Laurio. As Rappler writer Don Kevin Hapal suggests, Facebook could no longer ignore that the trolls had learned how to game its system.
It is this ability to simply remove inconvenient voices from the online debate that led Esguerra to ask whether the Philippines is experiencing “online martial law” alongside the very real military rule that has been imposed in Mindanao province since May 2017.
The battle to be heard then hit the trenches, with Facebook turning to organizations like Rappler and Vera Files to perform fact checks on the news, a stance in turn deplored by the government.
Esguerra is likely right in conceding that very little can be done about these trends without the support of the tech giants themselves. His view is that their engagement so far is “all just PR”, though Facebook has made efforts in the last few months to deal with the problem by tweaking its algorithm, highlighting information than can help verify the authenticity of posts and engaging in discussions with legitimate publishers.
Mobilizing civil society
In the meantime, civil society is organizing to share best practice and discuss countermeasures, as manifested in the program of workshops taking place on the sidelines of yesterday's EADF event.
Participants do so against a backdrop of high-stakes electoral battles. Indeed, Indonesia’s less than two decade old democracy votes today in local elections. According to forum speaker Alissa Wahid, National Coordinator of the Gusdurian Network Indonesia (GNI), which promotes interfaith dialogue and moderate Islamic views, the nation goes to the polls amid a rising tide of religious majoritarianism.
Overt calls to vote against non-Muslims or indeed abstain from voting undermine meaningful political debate coupled with what Wahid termed "hate spin" against members of other faiths, could ultimately lead to the kind of intolerance, righteous indignation and religious expansionism horrifically manifested by Islamic State, she said.
Wahid's work with GNI defends against such religious exclusivism by promoting a counter-narrative, particularly in Indonesia's rural public schools, that shows how democracy, or consensus, is an integral part of Islam.
Closer to home, in Taiwan, campaigning for the midterm local elections is already in full swing.
Forum speaker Wu Min-hsuan, Deputy CEO of the Open Culture Foundation, focused on the efforts of China-based content farms to sow disinformation within Taiwanese social messaging groups.
Wu, or Ttcat as he is known in hacking circles, has been instrumental in developing a government-focused open source movement in Taiwan, known as g0v, aimed at improving civic participation in democracy and encouraging government transparency.
The volunteer group is currently studying how to trace and analyze disinformation within the kind of closed social media groups within which much of Taiwanese society shares its news — 90 percent of the population use the Line social messaging app every week.
He illustrated the absence of checks within such social media groups by highlighting the circulation of an entirely fake Time magazine cover in 2018 that ran with the title “The Wonky Tsai, The Monkey DPP” (referring to the Taiwan’s current president and ruling party) and “Taiwan, the Iron Curtain Country”.
Fellow speaker Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔), Research Fellow with the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, spoke of the efforts made by conservative groups in the country to influence the debate over LGBT rights in the country ahead of the landmark May 24, 2017, Constitution Court decision to allow same-sex marriage.
“Usually the opposition uses Line to spread their information and the biggest challenge is to explain the correct information,” she said. “For example, the claim that HIV positive citizens will come to Taiwan to use the pubic health system if we legalize same-sex marriage, or that the state will teach your children how to be gay or trans.”
Enter the Cofacts Line bot, which allows Line users to forward content to more than 300 volunteer editors who can assist in tracing the source of the news as well as verifying its authenticity.
More than 30,000 Line users have added the bot, and it has 13,000 messages in its database, but Wu suggested this is not enough, adding that a research project is underway to better understand how China seeks to control public opinion in Taiwan through disinformation and propaganda.
All of this is not to say that there are no bright spots in Asia’s democratic landscape.
Malaysia’s landmark general election in which power changed hands for the first time in 60 years, showed the power democracy has to galvanize populations, as well as its ability to inspire those still struggling under the yoke of authoritarianism.
However, despite the new government, threats to freedom in Malaysia are as evident as ever. Numerous laws used to quash dissent, ranging from the catch-all Sedition Act to the specific blocks on “unlawful assembly” in the Peaceful Assembly Act, as well as vague communications and publications laws that engender self-censorship, to name a few, remain on the statute books. As does Malaysia's own fake news law, implemented by ousted former Prime Minister Najab Razak in the midst of the 1MDB scandal, and used to prosecute a Danish national for criticizing police online.
Such laws demonstrate the ease with which governments can leverage fears over fake news to quell criticism, and this ever present danger demands citizens and the organizations that represent them maintain the eternal vigilance that, as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文）said on Monday at the TFD 15th anniversary event, is the price we pay for liberty.
Few organizations embody that state of watchfulness better than Bersih 2.0, which since 2005 has battled for electoral reform in Asia and through which a series of civil society protests helped bring about the remarkable electoral general election result in May this year.
As suggested during a luncheon talk by Mandeep Singh, Manager of Bersih 2.0 (meaning “clean”), the group's demands for clean and fair elections in Malaysia, institutional reforms, clean government, free and fair elections, reform of the economy, and the right to peaceful dissent, are far from being met.
But the group will carry on. Just last week, Bersih 2.0 volunteered that the government ensure future Malaysian Election Commission chairmen be impartial, independent and an expert on election laws, as opposed to the incumbent chairman, Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, who served as a personal aide to the (now opposition) UMNO party’s information chief Annuar Musa for almost a decade.
As Bersih 2.0 continues to demonstrate, in the new Malaysia, just as in much of East Asia, there remains room for civil society to fight back.