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Combatting Disinformation: Active Citizenship and Progressive Politics in the Age of Fake News

Saturday, 28 December 2019

When the World Wide Web was finally made public on 6 August 1991, most political pundits greeted this event with excitement enthusiasm, claiming that this new form of virtual technology will be an absolute boon for democracy. The free flow of information, they argued, will not only empower ordinary citizens, but would also undermine ossified bureaucracies and disrupt outmoded forms of administrative practices.

In fact, as late as 2003, communications professor Gary Selnow of the San Francisco State University was still insisting that the “internet can play a significant role in preparing people for the transition to democracy,” since “it links people across borders (and) prepares people for an open and civil society.”

Other scholars, however, have been more cautious, stating that communications technology can be a powerful political tool in the hands of skilled spinmeisters. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, once asserted that “communications technology itself is value-neutral,” and that “they would have been used to great effects by Nazi propagandists like Leni Reifenstahl and Joseph Goebbels to promote fascist rather than democratic ideals.”

These doubts were proven correct in March 2018, when it was revealed that British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica had assisted Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by harvesting personal data from more 87 million Facebook users without their consent. The same company was also involved in the 2016 Brexit referendum, using data to convince “persuadables” to vote for Leave. In both cases, social media was heavily used by Cambridge Analytica in its campaign of disinformation.

To fully understand this problem, the current issue of the Socdem Asia Quarterly devotes its pages on the issue of disinformation and its assault on democratic norms and values. It features two separate discussions by Marije Laffeber of the Party of European Socialists (PES) and Filipino columnist John Nery on the concept of disinformation. For Nery, disinformation is the “deliberate sharing of false information for largely political or commercial objectives.” Laffeber, for her part, argue that the spread of fake news is facilitated by “hoax websites that spread hoax information.”

The impact of disinformation is deeply felt in the Philippines, which is now witnessing the return of the Marcos family in national politics. For historian Veronica Alporha, this “Marcosian comeback” is the direct consequence of historical revisionism, which is “further underscored and aggravated with the current landscape of information in the age of social media and the weaponization of the internet.”

In neighboring Indonesia, social media posts were used to delegitimize recent protest demonstrations against legislative attempts to weaken the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). According to Andina Dwifatma of Atma Jaya University, the online world became a virtual battlefield as “buzzers” or paid influencers posted fake news items to discredit the protests, which would then be refuted by tweeps or “Twitter people.”

India is also facing a similar problem, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has deliberately used social media to win in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. As Dr. D.K. Giri of the Association of Democratic Socialism (ADS), points out, the BJP has transformed the campaign “into a ‘digital election’ in addition to the traditional methods of leaflets, posters, house-to-house visits, etc.” Journalist Kamal Dev Bhattarai also analyzed the spread of fake news in Nepal which, he argues, is due to the increasing use of smartphones in a country “where the overall literacy rate is low.”

Each one of our contributors have proposed various ways of addressing disinformation. While there is much room for continuing debate, all our authors agree that efforts should be made to promote digital literacy by incorporating this theme in the curriculum for basic education. They also insist that we continue to use existing online spaces to promote social democratic values, while persisting in our organizing efforts in the real-world.

It is high time to combat disinformation. And as Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, “the truth never damages a cause that is just.”

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