Sayi Gharat, 9, attends school online using her mother's mobile phone in Dunge village in western India, 8 February, 2022 (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran).

Authors: Helani Galpaya and Ramathi Bandaranayake, LIRNEasia

Having stagnated for years, the percentage of South Asians who have used the internet has finally reached 50 per cent. In South Asia internet use is synonymous with social media, with most users spending all their time on chat applications. Many of these users have low digital skills and are often passive consumers in a digital world that attempts to influence, and at times misinform and manipulate, them.

Another smaller group are more active consumers, working digitally on global remote-work platforms and earning much-needed income. But even their labour can be an unwitting participant in these manipulation efforts.

Like other regions, South and Southeast Asia have seen a growing debate about ‘information disorder’, a term including misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and hate speech. This is not a new problem. False and hateful content has long been spread by governments, individuals, special interest groups and other entities through non-digital means. But digital technologies enable a higher volume of information to spread faster and with greater reach.

Information disorder can be spread by actors with different motivations. In the political arena, organised online disinformation campaigns such as ‘IT cells’ in India, ‘troll factories’ in the Philippines, ‘buzzers’ in Indonesia and ‘cyber troops’ in Malaysia seek to influence electoral and other political outcomes. These campaigns can also cross borders. A 2020 EU Disinfo Lab report described an operation they dubbed ‘Indian chronicles’, which ‘resurrected dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs’ as part of an attempt to undermine Pakistan internationally.

Likewise, Doublethink Lab in Taiwan observed operations based in China and Taiwan pushing narratives such as ‘democracy is a failure’ targeting Taiwan’s 2020 general elections. Hate speech against ethnic minorities also spreads online. Serious anti-Muslim sentiment online …continue reading