The Illusion of Regulation: Unveiling the Truth Behind Misinformation

By Edika Amin

Prevalence of Misinformation in Asia Pacific

Misinformation is defined as false or misleading information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead. Essentially, misinformation doesn’t care about intent, and so is simply a term for any kind of false or misleading information.

The spread of misinformation is becoming a significant issue in the Asia Pacific region. Some recent examples of misinformation-related challenges that have been observed in the Asia Pacific region include:

  • COVID-19 Pandemic: Throughout the pandemic, misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 have spread rapidly in the Asia Pacific region. False claims about the virus’s origin, transmission, potential treatments and prevention have circulated widely, leading to confusion and strange behaviors which included a ‘toilet paper run’ where many were made to believe that paper pulp used to make toilet paper is also used in the production of masks[1]. On a more serious note, misinformation slowed down public health efforts as it raised skepticism around the use of COVID vaccines.
  • Natural Disasters: Misinformation often spreads rapidly during natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or typhoons. A more recent case saw social media users rehash misinformation about the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, to falsely claim that weather geoengineering and a former American military project caused the recent natural disasters in New Zealand[2]. In times of emergency, false reports such as this can take away from actual casualty numbers, relief efforts and create confusion among affected communities.
  • Economic Activities: Coldplay’s recent decision to use the Music of the Spheres world tour to perform in places they haven’t played before is a welcomed economic opportunity for Malaysia, even garnering praise from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. However, certain political parties and actors quickly circulated Martin’s images of holding Pride flags in the past to stir panic amongst Malaysians with regard to LGBTQ+ rights[3] and thus spreading the wrong message on the group’s intent to perform in Malaysia.

Is Regulation Warranted?

Tackling misinformation is no easy task for governments and regulators. Increasingly, policymakers around the world are searching for new ways to deal with the spread of ‘bad’ information online. However, we must remain cognizant that new regulations that seek to thwart the spread of this content could have a chilling effect on access to information. In addition to this, there are also other unwarranted spillovers such as:

  • Broad overarching powers of Government: These laws would tend to grant broad powers to the government to request a take down for anything they deem to be a ‘false’, if they believe it is in the ‘public interest’ to do so. This puts an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of individual ministers and agencies.
  • Lack of transparency and accountability: Prescriptive laws lack transparency in the process or how decisions are being made by Governments on take-down requests. This reflects the criticism being made of platforms content moderation decisions, which should also apply to governments.
  • Broad Scope: The law can cover virtually all kinds of communication, including private messaging services, giving rise to a very real possibility of misuse (inadvertently or not) by the authorities charged with its implementation, as well as privacy concerns.

In this case, prescriptive legislation is not an effective tool to curb misinformation. This is because misinformation continues to evolve and become more complex for legislation to keep pace. For instance, across the region, governments have enacted “fake news” legislation to force platforms to remove questionable content and to punish users who create or spread it. But most of this is designed to address public channels of social media — platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. This has encouraged the move off public platforms and onto encrypted ones which is not covered by these legislations i.e. Telegram.

Tackling Misinformation is a Multistakeholder Approach

In eradicating misinformation, a whole of society approach is required and the responsibility should not fall squarely on a single party. The cases of Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand feature among the better examples in curbing misinformation without heavy regulation:

  • Taiwan’s multi-stakeholder approach includes the government, digital platforms and non-profit groups working together to fight misinformation by raising awareness about the subject, promoting digital literacy, and fact-checking. For instance, since 2018, Taiwan FactCheck Center, an independent non-profit, has been working with social media companies to combat misinformation. Posts flagged as containing false information bring up a screen with a link that takes users to a Taiwan FactCheck Center report before they can view the content.
  • The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation was an industry led intiative by the Digital Industry Group Inc in consultation with the Australian government. The outcome-based code commits signatories to have safeguards against online misinformation and disinformation whilst providing flexibility to implement measures appropriate to their respective platforms.
  • The Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms commits signatories to a set of Guiding Principles and Commitments that aims to mitigate the risks and reduce the prevalence of harmful content which includes misinformation. More recently, the code has garnered pace as New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs sees this method as the way forward as part of their media platforms review.

Ultimately, if Governments do choose to formalize the approach to countering misinformation, including to go down the legislative routes, a good first step is to consider self-regulation and voluntary commitments by industry until a period of evidence gathering can be carried out to better understand the situation in the country. It is also essential for these efforts to be complemented with media and digital literacy campaigns coupled with greater and more transparent collaboration between Government, industry and civil societies. This provides a more concrete and concerted effort forward rather than the illusion of regulation.

[1] https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2020/02/12/2003730827

[2] https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/factlab-meta/new-zealand-cyclone-and-earthquake-were-not-engineered-disasters

[3] https://www.thepinknews.com/2023/05/22/coldplay-malaysia-gig-lgbtq-rights/

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