Fighting Fake News

The Fighting Fake News industry report finds the legislative approaches of countries in the Asia Pacific include significant jail terms and large fines for convicted offenders.

Download The Fighting Fake News: A study of online misinformation regulation in the Asia Pacific report.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how the spread of fake news and misinformation online – even if shared without malicious intent – can weaken global public health efforts, contribute to social unrest and lead to real-life harms or even death.

Researchers from La Trobe University today published a landmark report detailing the harm caused by online misinformation, how it is being regulated in some countries, and recommending how it might be tackled.

Lead researcher, La Trobe political science and journalism expert Associate Professor Andrea Carson, said the report aims to assist governments, authorities, and digital platforms manage this complex and challenging issue.

In the Asia Pacific, Singapore and Indonesia are among the early adopters of fake news laws to crack down on the pernicious problem of online misinformation and disinformation.

The Fighting Fake News industry report finds the legislative approaches of these countries include significant jail terms and large fines for convicted offenders.

While these laws aim to address COVID-19 misinformation and the real-world violence and hate speech aimed at minority and religious groups that can be caused by the spread of disinformation and misinformation, internet and human rights experts fear the laws are also open to political misuse.

The report details the findings of interviews with local journalists, editors, fact checkers, media regulators, academics, digital platform providers, human rights activists and members of non-government organisations in the Asia Pacific who have practical knowledge of how false information online – and policy responses to it – impact citizens’ daily lives and public debate.

Interviewees say Australia’s neighbouring governments have, at times, used the laws to target their political opponents, as well as journalists, religious groups, political dissidents, human rights campaigners and other activists.

The report also finds a lack of expert consensus on working definitions of misinformation and disinformation contribute to the difficulties in developing clear policies and measures to tackle it.

The finding comes at a critical time for the Australian Government as it prepares to introduce new measures to tackle online disinformation and misinformation. Following an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, the Morrison government has directed online digital platforms to develop a voluntary code of practice to counter online disinformation to be implemented this year. The new code will be overseen by the media regulator with a final draft expected this month.

Dr Carson said overseas examples offer a useful snapshot of the key challenges of tackling online falsehoods, but also the controversial government responses to it, that can inform the Australian approach: “It reminds us that, in regulating fake news, we must be alert to the potential for any new anti-misinformation laws and regulations to be misused by governments to undermine freedom of speech and the media.”

In Singapore, most of the controversy surrounds the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which gives extensive powers to the Government and its ministers to declare information to be false or misleading, and to force publishers to apply a correction notice or remove content. Some expert interviewees questioned how the Government could make fair judgements in cases where it was the subject of alleged falsehoods, while others have highlighted the potential for POFMA to be used to intimidate independent media and government critics.

In Indonesia, the Government’s use of the Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE) to prosecute online misinformation has been characterised by critics as a threat to freedom of speech and media freedom. Hundreds of Indonesians have been prosecuted and some jailed under the 2016 law over online comments critical of the Government and President Jokowi in recent years.

Facebook inc provided a research grant; all research work was conducted under La Trobe’s research ethics process, which prevents grant providers influencing research activity.