UMass Amherst Expert Finds Disinformation Production Has Become Diversified and ‘Democratized’

New NATO StratCom COE report highlights key trends in election-related disinformation and integrity interventions from study of three Southeast Asian nations
Jonathan Corpus Ong
Jonathan Corpus Ong

AMHERST, Mass. – A new report on disinformation in Southeast Asian elections co-authored by Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has found key trends in election-related disinformation and offers insight and comparison for other countries as a possible preview of forthcoming global trends.

The report, published this week by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence and co-authored by Ross Tapsell, senior lecturer and researcher at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, offers to shed new light on the various ways in which state actors themselves are actively involved in disinformation production.

“It’s important to have a global and comparative perspective when tackling social problems,” Ong says. “I hope this report emphasizes this idea further — that we need to be open and curious about diverse contexts, their specific local histories, and the lessons they might yield for other countries as well. Asia is in the frontlines of the fight against disinformation. The disinformation innovations you see here will preview the kinds of problems you’ll later experience in America. We learned for example how Instagram clickfarms in Indonesia have been found to service overseas clients, while the Philippines’ thriving and unregulated influencer economy previewed influencer marketing strategies later seen in Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign in the 2020 U.S. Democratic primaries.”

In “Mitigating Disinformation in Southeast Asian Elections: Lessons from Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand,” Ong and Tapsell draw on interviews with politicians, campaigners, digital strategists and journalists to highlight a number of key trends in election-related disinformation and integrity interventions in the three countries, including:

  • Incumbents made use of the state’s information machinery to amplify particular political narratives in elections.
  • Incumbents strategically harnessed the regulatory mechanisms of election campaigns and social media content monitoring to their advantage.
  • Disinformation production has diversified and “democratized.”
  • Social media platforms were not determining of electoral outcomes. Grassroots mobilization and “ground machinery” remained crucial.
  • Tech platforms applied different and uneven interventions.
  • The consequence of an expanded disinformation landscape is ever-deepening polarization.

Ong and Tapsell observed a wide range of political actors and parties enlisting a diversity of digital campaign specialists, such as paid Indonesian ‘buzzers,’ Filipino ‘trolls,’ and Thai ‘IOs (information operators),’ to circulate manipulative narratives discrediting their political opponents. Some politicians even fanned the flames of religious and ethnic conflict in their communities in a desperate bid to score votes, while tech platforms, journalists and fact-checkers struggled to catch up with disinformation architects’ savvy innovations, they say. Rather than mitigate disinformation, they say that state actors and government legislators in all three countries have been found directly responsible for producing political disinformation themselves.

“Despite regularly declaring themselves as “victims” of online negative campaigning and disinformation production,” the researchers write, “the state, political parties and politicians have also increasingly become key funders of the industry, exacerbating the problem, but at the same time arguing for new laws and regulations around social media which ultimately crack down on broader freedom of expression.”

“Southeast Asia’s experiences with political disinformation in elections caution countries around the world that so-called ‘cures’ of legislative and police crackdowns could be even worse than the ‘illness’ of disinformation production,” Ong says. “As cases in Indonesia and Singapore have shown, laws which oversee social media content have become politicized and partisan, often cracking down on opposition politicians or supporters.

“The three countries can certainly learn from each other the range of possible regulatory interventions that can be applied,” Ong says. “Clearly, disinformation is a systemic problem that cannot be eradicated by fact checks or high-publicity platform bans of individual ‘bad actors’ alone. Nor can government legislation be fully trusted with legislation as they can hijack “fake news” panics to target critics and dissenters.”

The complete study, “Mitigating Disinformation in Southeast Asian Elections: Lessons from Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand,” is available online from the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence.