How do you define fake news?
It is a term that has swept into common lexicon in recent years, but what does it actually mean.
The truth is that it depends on your perspective. If you are an everyday person, you would probably assume that it is a piece of information which is untrue or factually inaccurate.
But what is truth?
What is true for you might be very different from what is true for me. Does something have to be verifiable in order to make it true?
Before this turns into a GCSE Philosophy article, the answer is that there is no universally accepted definition of the term ‘fake news’. And this is a massive problem for people in many countries, where governments have chosen to legislate to try and clamp down on it.
South-east Asia’s fake news legislation
This is a particular issue in south-east Asia, as has been highlighted in a powerful article by the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.
They note that last year’s Freedom on the Net report, compiled by the US human rights group Freedom House identified every single south-east Asian country as having an internet that was either ‘not free’ or partially free’.
They went on to highlight a number of examples where governments in the region appear to be using anti-fake news laws as a ruse to clamp down on internet freedoms more generally.
One such country is Singapore which passed a controversial anti-fake news act earlier this month which gives the government sweeping new powers to interfere with freedom of speech.
Singapore is generally not thought of as a repressive country by their attitude towards online freedoms suggest otherwise. We have reported previously about plans to try and ban VPNs in the city-state.
Vietnam is another regime which has implemented stricter controls. Vietnam is a single-party Communist state and takes its lead from China on such matters. They passed a sweeping and hugely controversial cybersecurity law earlier this year.
This placed stringent requirements on tech companies to store data in the country and delete social media content at the government’s request, among other things. It is just the latest in a long line of laws strengthening state powers of online censorship and surveillance.
Cambodia is another example. Ahead of their Presidential elections in May last year, a regulation which gave the government powers to investigate any website that published fake news saw widespread online censorship ahead of the inevitable re-election of the sitting President Hun Sen.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch sums up the issue rather succinctly when he says the issue of fake news has “become the new rationale to censor anything a government does not like that appears on the internet.”
Is Thailand next?
The Deutsche Welle article highlights Thailand as the next country likely to head down this same road.
The Thai government is about to take steps against what they describe as the dissemination of fake news. They will soon open a new centre dedicated to tackling fake news on social media sites.
While the term fake news is used extensively in describing the new centre’s remit, few observers are in any doubt as to its true purpose.
As Emilie Pradichit, director of the Thailand-based human rights group Manushya Foundation, explained, the plans illustrate “the government’s efforts to further restrict online freedom by controlling netizens’ online content, through a ‘legitimized’ anti-fake news centre.”
The likely impact of the new centre was summed up by Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. It “will only serve to institute internet censorship based on vague and general definitions made by politicized officers keen to end any criticism of the government,” he explained.
The government has dismissed these concerns and says the public will play a full role in the new centre. But, recent legislation in Thailand suggests there is good reason for Thai people to be alarmed.
The government’s recent Cyber-Security Act, Computer Crime Act, and their enthusiastic use of the hugely controversial lese-majeste law, as well as regular online censorship, all point to a desire to control the flow of online information.
The example of Malaysia
If there is a glimmer of light in the region, it comes in the form of Malaysia. Under their previous Prime Minister, Najib Razak, they were also transforming into a digital authoritarian nation.
But after he was removed following a global corruption scandal, his replacement Mahathir Bin Mohamad has repealed their highly controversial anti-fake news laws and argued strongly that existing legislation is more than sufficient to take issues are the dissemination of false information and other threats to the country’s security.
It is slightly depressing that the only leader in south-east Asia taking such an approach is the 94-year old Malaysian PM, who only came out of retirement at a time of national crisis.
Malaysia is far from a model nation in many regards, but on this issue, it has taken the right stance.
Government’s should be prevented from using fake news to hand themselves powers to censor the internet. It should not be a method to retain their grip on power.
The people of south-east Asia have a right to freedom of expression and a free and open internet. They shouldn’t have to use a VPN to access information critical of their government and any suggestion that such laws are in the national interest and vital for national security should be dismissed as the lies they are.