As the press conference drew to a close, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha held up a hand. “If you want to ask any questions on politics or conflict,” he announced, gesturing to a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself being wheeled in by a nervous aide, “ask this guy.” Without another word, he walked away. The meaning was unmistakable. After all, who better to front up to the fake news media than a fake man?
Less than 24 hours before, US President Donald Trump had sent out a tweet setting the time and place for his so-called “fake news awards”, the climax of a bitter campaign against critical media waged by the notoriously thin-skinned commander-in-chief. Inspired by vague reports of widespread misinformation scattered across social media in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the label ‘fake news’ has become synonymous with a White House desperate to dismiss ongoing reports of its own incompetence – and given authoritarian regimes across the world another weapon in their fight against free speech and, very often, truth.
Prayuth is far from the only leader in the region taking notes from Trump’s playbook. Speaking to more than 3,000 members of the press in Phnom Penh, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lavished praise on the president’s actions. “Even in the US they have this kind of press and the US president created press awards for fake and lying news,” he said with the easy confidence of a leader who was able to summon more than 3,000 members of the press to be briefed on the government line.
In Myanmar, the same two words came all to easily to the woman once synonymous with the nation’s new era of democracy. Speaking with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed widespread reports of a military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the nation’s Muslim Rohingya minority as mere misinformation, effortlessly echoing months of denials by the generals most responsible for the violence.
And in the Philippines, it is a charge that is now being used to justify the closure of a popular news site that has long pursued accusations of corruption and cronyism within the government of popular President Rodrigo Duterte – a man who himself pledged to fight against the deeply entrenched corruption in the capital.
These leaders have long had the means – legal or otherwise – to crack down on local media that holds them to account for their actions, but with Trump’s Twitter feed burning bright in the palm of their hands, they now not only have the means, but some kind of twisted moral high ground.
The charge of ‘fake news’ is effective precisely because it feeds into a long-running distrust of the press that has only become sharper with the proliferation of social media. The flattening effect of the news feed, where New York Times investigations are given just about as much weight as Daily Mail articles falsely blaming the rape and torture of a two-year-old boy on Burman security forces in Rakhine State rather than a Vietnamese national in Cambodia, forces readers to fall back on their own prejudices rather than critically engaging with each story on its own merits.
If you’ve grown up in a region still recovering from years of disastrous US military intervention, a Fresh News article claiming that the Cambodian opposition leader’s daughters are CIA assets likely fits your worldview a lot better than a piece from the Phnom Penh Post detailing the prime minister’s own violent ousting just over 20 years ago of the man actually elected to lead the Cambodian people. Hard truths are tough to swallow. Glibly dismissing them as ‘fake news’ is just an easy way to stop them sticking in our throats.
That there are people out there peddling lies and half-truths for political gain or profit is not news – though with social media becoming more widespread across Southeast Asia, manufactured misinformation has the chance to reach more marks than ever.
Indonesia’s so-called ‘fake news factory’ Saracen, for example, has been accused by police of flogging its falsehoods to the highest bidder, including targeted campaigns using sham social media accounts to spread hoaxes and hate speech in the lead-up to the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election. The syndicate was believed to have been instrumental in whipping up the right-wing Islamist frenzy that forced Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, a close ally of President Joko Widodo and an ethnic Chinese Christian to boot, out of an easy re-election and into a prison cell on blasphemy charges.
This is not the fake news that Southeast Asia’s strongmen are concerned with. For Duterte, fake news is Rappler producing documents accusing his right-hand man of personally intervening in a military deal worth almost $300m. For Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and the ageing generals at her back, fake news is hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees each reporting a months-long campaign of rape, torture and pillage by the Myanmar military. For Hun Sen, fake news is any outlet that refuses to blindly parrot his promises of stability and development, whatever the human cost. For Chan-ocha – well, his actions speak for themselves.
As the sullen-faced general strode off, smug hand raised to the sky in mocking salute, the baffled press corps slowly closed in on his hollow replacement. Preening for the cameras, they began snapping selfies, their press passes hanging limp in their lanyards.
In the court of the last boy-emperor of China, it is said, the eunuchs who served in the final days of the crumbling Qing Dynasty were made to wear their severed sex organs pickled in brine around their neck. This is the media that Southeast Asia’s so-called strongmen crave: a neutered press, knees cold against the floor, forced to bear the scars of its disgrace cinched tight about its throat. With Trump tweeting from his porcelain throne, they may well get it.