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Disinformation is not limited to digital

/ 09:06 AM April 23, 2019

Today, “fake news” is often described or understood as digital. Even in Asia, the emphasis on digitally manipulated information, circulated through digital platforms like Facebook, for political gain or to profit from a digital gold rush, is a reflection of the times—and for good reason.

Seven of the 20 countries with the fastest growth in absolute number of internet users, in We Are Social’s January 2019 report, are from Asia. India leads the world with an additional 97.8 million users; three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations added over 30 million in one year (Indonesia, plus 17.3 million; the Philippines, plus 9 million; Cambodia, plus 4.5 million). China is second fastest in the world, with an additional 50.6 million users.

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But it is crucial to pry one’s eyes away from the digital space long enough, to see that disinformation and its upstart spawn, “fake news,” do not need to inhabit the internet or submerse in social media to wreak consequential damage.

“If by ‘fake news’ we are talking about the distortion or the selective framing of facts, then I do not believe we are in new territory,” writes the Malaysian scholar Farish A. Noor. “There is a long history of this and it goes back to the beginning of the printing press and popular journalism in the nineteenth century.”

His instructive examples of deliberately slanted reporting, which “presented the non-Western Other in terms that were jaundiced or biased,” include the distortions and disinformation that justified the British role in the three Anglo-Burmese Wars between 1824 and 1885.

“Empires may have been built on information, but their power was often legitimized and reproduced through misinformation, distortion and outright lies as well. Again, the history of Southeast Asia is instructive here: when Britain turned its sights on Burma, the Kingdom of Burma was seen and cast in a decidedly negative light by colonial scholars and reporters.”

“News reports emerged and were circulated across the empire, about the alleged wrongdoings of the Burmese towards their own people and their neighbours. The popular theme at the time was the idea that Burma was a ‘belligerent power,’ bent on becoming a dangerous ‘Asiatic empire.’ Burma was referred to as ‘the Burman Empire’ in maps and news reports, though the fact was that the real empire was Britain, and it was Britain that posed an existential threat to Burma, as it spread its power across much of northern India.”

(Noor’s remarks at the Asian Journalism Forum in Singapore in 2007, on which his commentary on fake news was based, are even more pointed; among other qualities, they necessarily draw the disturbing parallels to the US-led invasion of Iraq.)

Another example of the use of disinformation by colonizing forces, which Noor also references: In the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, US newspapers deliberately mischaracterized Filipino revolutionaries and the revolutionary situation in the Philippines, helping create a climate of opinion in the United States that was favorable to colonial conquest and empire-building.

They were merely following the lead of an ambitious US government; President William McKinley’s infamous rationalization for the American takeover of the Philippines was based in part on two false “facts” with pernicious consequences: that Filipinos are “unfit for self-government,” and that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

In reality, the Philippine revolutionary government was doing creditable work governing its territory, as the voluminous documents captured by the US Army proved; and the largely Catholic population was already Christianized. Spanish proselytizers arrived in the Philippines almost a hundred years before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock.

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[Excerpts from “Democratic Decay and Disinformation in the Digital Age,” an “issue briefer” I wrote for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, available for free.]

Here’s a recent example of nondigital disinformation, given at the ongoing 2nd Conference on Democracy and Disinformation, at the new University of the Philippines campus in Bonifacio Global City. Students from Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro who had gone on immersion in Bukidnon province a few weeks ago and were staging an exhibit of the photographs they had taken found themselves “Red-tagged” for no reason. Sheets of paper—old-fashioned paper—were distributed at the mall where the exhibit was being staged, anonymously accusing the students of being New People’s Army members, and of the exhibit as communist propaganda. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but the lie came in nondigital form.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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