The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) launched a comprehensive report highlighting the need for improved fact-checking efforts in Asia as countries grapple with the surge of online misinformation.
Entitled Managing the Misinformation Effect – The State of Fact-Checking in Asia, the report dives deep into the challenges of misinformation and offers recommendations to strengthen fact-checking. The report concentrates on fact-checking in five Asian countries: Indonesia, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, each grappling with its distinct set of challenges in the fight against misinformation:
Bangladesh: Misinformation has had catastrophic consequences in Bangladesh, leading to incidents of communal violence and loss of life. The report underscores the pivotal role of fact-checking in exposing misinformation campaigns in a nation where press freedom faces increasing restrictions.
In recent years, Bangladesh has witnessed alarming incidents of communal violence sparked by misinformation, resulting in deaths and the displacement of communities. One particularly egregious incident saw an angry Muslim crowd vandalizing and torching Buddhist temples and homes in protest of a fake photo shared on Facebook, falsely depicting a partially burned Quran.
Social media hoaxes have proven deadly as well, with eight people losing their lives in 2019 during vigilante lynchings sparked by rumors on Facebook that falsely claimed children were being kidnapped and sacrificed for the construction of a mega-bridge.
Furthermore, anti-refugee misinformation has found a place in Bangladesh’s mainstream media and social media platforms, as documented by international media outlets. In a country where press freedom has been gradually shrinking under repressive laws and trust in the media is declining, fact-checking has emerged as a new window for people to challenge established narratives with facts and expose misinformation.
A research project on the role of fact-checking organizations in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, published in 2018, concluded that despite their limitations, these initiatives remained persistent in debunking false claims, with users starting to engage with them.
India: The proliferation of misinformation in India has wreaked havoc on public health, livelihoods, and social harmony. The report highlights how the rapid growth of digital technologies and increasing internet penetration have exacerbated the problem, making robust fact-checking initiatives essential.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, India witnessed a staggering 214 percent increase in cases related to “fake news” and rumors, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Such misinformation had real-world consequences, such as India’s poultry industry incurring losses due to baseless social media speculations that chickens could spread the COVID-19 virus. False claims alleging that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus also led to calls for an economic boycott of Muslim traders.
While misinformation is not a new phenomenon, the rapid proliferation of digital technologies and increased internet penetration have amplified its reach and impact. According to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, India had over 700 million internet subscribers and over a billion mobile phones as of 2022. However, this widespread access has not translated into a corresponding increase in digital literacy – the ability to use the internet meaningfully and critically. A study by Oxford University Press found that 54 percent of surveyed Indians use social media to access factual information, with 87 percent sharing information from social media expressing confidence in its accuracy.
In this context, fact-checking emerges as an important tool to tackle misinformation. As of January 2023, India boasts the largest number of verified and active signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network‘s code of principles, with 14 Indian fact-checking organizations listed.
Indonesia: The report reveals the historical role of the state in propagating misinformation. Historically, Indonesia has been a fertile ground for misinformation, with blatant examples dating back to the early 1960s during the transition from the Old Order to the New Order era. A state-sponsored nationwide campaign blamed the September 30th, 1965 Movement for the deaths of seven army generals, leading to mass killings and violence against individuals and groups affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party, who were falsely accused of orchestrating the coup. This campaign relied heavily on misinformation disseminated through newspapers and radio.
Today, Indonesia’s misinformation landscape is more complex, influenced by a range of actors, including the state, overseas actors, and economic interests. The government has been accused of participating in information disorder campaigns, with accusations of state-sponsored trolling and disinformation spreading across social media platforms.
Moreover, overseas actors have also contributed to the spread of misinformation in Indonesia. For instance, in 2019, a global misinformation network linked to China was exposed, operating on Facebook and Twitter. The network disseminated pro-China narratives and targeted pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but it also extended its reach to Indonesia. Economic interests play a significant role as well. Misinformation and hoaxes related to health and safety have plagued the palm oil industry, with false claims of cancer risks associated with palm oil consumption leading to economic losses. As a major palm oil producer, Indonesia’s economy was affected significantly by the misinformation campaign.
In this complex environment, fact-checking organizations in Indonesia strive to counter misinformation and maintain the public’s trust in accurate information. Initiatives like Mafindo (Masyarakat Anti Fitnah Indonesia) have been active in debunking hoaxes and promoting media literacy. However, they face considerable challenges, including threats to their safety and the challenge of reaching a diverse and sometimes isolated population.
Nepal: Nepal, in many ways, represents a unique case in the context of Asia’s misinformation landscape. It is a nation characterized by political instability, frequent government changes, and a lack of media and information literacy among its population. Despite these challenges, Nepal has not been immune to the spread of misinformation, although the scale and impact are comparatively lower than in some of its regional neighbors.
One of the recurring issues in Nepal has been the circulation of rumors and false information related to political developments and security incidents. The country’s complex political landscape, which has witnessed frequent power struggles and changes in leadership, provides fertile ground for the spread of misinformation. For instance, during Nepal’s political transition, there have been instances of false information being circulated about key political figures, their affiliations, and their intentions. Such misinformation can fuel tensions and contribute to social and political instability, making fact-checking an important tool for maintaining public trust and preventing the escalation of conflicts.
Despite these challenges, fact-checking initiatives have steadily grown in Nepal, with organizations like South Asia Check playing a crucial role in debunking false claims and providing accurate information to the public. These initiatives face hurdles, such as limited resources. Still, they remain dedicated to promoting media literacy and countering misinformation in a nation where spreading false information can have significant consequences.
Sri Lanka: The report casts a spotlight on Sri Lanka’s dual problems of polarisation and disinformation within its media and political landscape. The country’s media outlets are often divided along ethno-linguistic and ideological lines, deepening societal divisions. Fact-checking initiatives in Sri Lanka play a pivotal role in disrupting these patterns and promoting informed democratic discussion.
One prominent issue in Sri Lanka’s misinformation landscape is the propagation of false narratives related to ethnic and religious tensions. Misinformation and hate speech have been weaponized, leading to communal violence. For instance, the deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2018 were partially fuelled by misinformation campaigns that spread false claims about Muslim businesses. Another challenge is the polarisation of media outlets along political lines, with many outlets aligning themselves with specific political parties or ideologies. This has resulted in biased reporting and the amplification of partisan narratives.
Organizations like FactCheck.lk and Verité Research have played a crucial role in debunking false claims and promoting informed democratic discussion. They have faced challenges, including threats to their credibility and safety, but continue to provide a vital service in a country where misinformation has real-world consequences.
The IFJ report not only highlights the critical role of fact-checking in Asia’s media landscape but also presents key findings and a series of recommendations to address the misinformation epidemic:
- Vital Defender of Democracy: Fact-checking emerges as a vital defender of democracy, serving to combat misinformation, promote media literacy, and restore public trust in independent media.
- Media Support: Media outlets and journalists are urged to support independent fact-checking institutions and the growing network of fact-checkers regionally and globally. Fact-checking skills workshops and training for all journalists and media workers are essential to mitigate the unintentional spread of misinformation in media reporting.
- Safety of Fact-Checkers: Fact-checking organizations should take measures to protect fact-checkers from threats to their physical and mental well-being, including defamation, harassment, abuse, and vicarious trauma.
- Visibility on Social Media: Social media platforms should ensure that fact-checks receive the same level of visibility as the misinformation they aim to correct, thereby leveling the information playing field.
- Journalist Unions’ Role: Journalist unions are encouraged to explore and expand efforts to support and represent fact-checkers “rights to publish” and express solidarity by recognizing their participation as media workers.
- Support from Funders and Donors: Funders and donors should continue supporting fact-checking initiatives, covering training, startup initiatives, and long-term sustainability programs.
- Long-Term Sustainability: Fact-checking initiatives should explore sustainable funding models beyond short-term options, ensuring their viability in the long run.
- Community Engagement: Fact-checking initiatives should expand their reach to enhance media literacy and actively seek support from media outlets, civil society, and human rights defenders in disseminating their findings.
- Media Literacy Education: Universities and schools should incorporate critical reading skills in their curricula, focusing on analyzing official information, mass media, and social media to encourage media literacy.
The IFJ‘s report emphasizes that fact-checking groups require stability and longevity built on reliable funding and solid organizational foundations. They must also be vigilant about protecting their fact-checkers from harm, recognizing the physical safety and mental health threats associated with this line of work. In an era when information is power, the battle against misinformation is more critical than ever, and fact-checkers are on the frontline in this fight for truth and accountability.
Paul is a British communications expert specializing in strategy, framing, messaging, and crisis communications. He has extensive expertise working in the Maldives and Asia on foreign policy, climate diplomacy, renewable energy policy, and democracy and governance. Paul has served as communications advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed, helping him to build an exceptional international profile. He is the founder of Atoll Communications, a Maldivian PR and communications firm. He is also the COO of the Maldives Coral Institute.