Main Image Credit Raffles Place, Singapore. Courtesy of Ramir Borja/Wikimedia Commons.
Southeast Asian countries are struggling to control the media and public narratives during the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus arrived in Southeast Asia much earlier than the rest of the world. With the first case in Thailand reported on 13 January 2020, regional governments had ample notice. However, Southeast Asian governments failed to take advantage of this and deal with the widespread circulation of unfounded rumours and misinformation relating to the virus. Instead, they were just as exposed to the onslaught of fake news – particularly disguised in the form of crisis communications – as governments were in other parts of the world.
Southeast Asia’s History of Narrative Construction
Narrative construction – namely the imposed creation of a storyline – has a long tradition in the region. Intimately tied to the search for political legitimacy, it has been a process over which governments have kept a firm grip. This is reflected in the region’s historical relationship with the press. Although the degree varies, Southeast Asian governments have exercised a level of control over the local press that would be frowned upon in Western societies accustomed to the principle of press freedom. Further shaped by the forces of decolonisation, culture and realpolitik, the national narrative has emerged as one of the cornerstones of regional politics, serving to accentuate the state’s effectiveness and prestige, at the same time cementing over cracks in the political foundation. A government’s mandate is therefore not just dependent on its effectiveness, but how convincingly it portrays itself as such.
It has hence been common for broader international events to be politicised along national lines, weaved into local narratives to align with domestic interests. During the Cold War, local narratives interpreted global events to help justify policies designed to legitimise and consolidate domestic rule. One such application was the appropriation of the ‘communist’ label to tag various dissident groups, rationalising actions to curb or eliminate opposing voices. Narrative construction is therefore not only intrinsic to Southeast Asian politics, but is an ongoing process that continuously evolves to incorporate the latest international developments.
However, technological developments have created cracks in the state’s control over narrative construction, the rise of social media being particularly influential. The responses of state governments have been mixed, ranging from cautious acceptance to outright condemnation. Regardless, a common trend is the promulgation of initiatives to combat counternarratives, at times labelled as disinformation, either through legislation or more aggressive forms of narrative construction. This contextualises the contest of narratives that has now emerged in Southeast Asia. Narratives surrounding coronavirus have been politicised by various interest groups to either enhance or discredit state authority. Given how crisis communications is one of the most visible demonstrations of a government’s control over the situation, it has emerged at the forefront of this contest of narratives.
Crisis Communications Exploited by Disinformation
The way in which crisis communications is handled has become a key indicator of how well a government is responding to the pandemic. For example, the Singaporean government was commended by the World Health Organization for its crisis communications. Singapore encouraged its citizens to subscribe to WhatsApp updates from the Ministry of Health as well as check the Ministry’s website for updates on the coronavirus situation. A dominant narrative that surfaced was the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, lauded for his reassuring speeches which conveyed a sense of calm and confidence in the midst of the pandemic.
However, despite Singapore’s exemplary crisis communications model, the city-state finds itself the victim of its own success. Counternarratives that leverage its effective crisis communication strategies have since materialised, designed to undermine trust and confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis. For example, instances were noted of misleading tweets and false messages flooding the information space, diverting attention away from the official channels of communication. For citizens who have been accustomed to the government being the sole credible source of information, the usurpation of its exclusive role by alternative media is unsettling.
Narratives and Counternarratives
To counter the spread of false narratives, Southeast Asian governments are using previously established ‘anti-fake news laws’. Even prior to the pandemic, serious concerns over how the enactment of these laws curtailed media freedom and heightened self-censorship were raised. However, authorities are now using the pandemic to invoke such legislation, clamping down on fake news in a disconcerting manner. Thailand, for example, has utilised its ‘Anti-Fake News Centre’ to identify and prosecute people for circulating false information about the spread of infections in the country while Singapore has invoked its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act against an online post that accused the government of concealing the virus case numbers in a bid to quell panic in the country. Similar incidents have also been observed in Malaysia and Indonesia. By criminalising fake news, Southeast Asian governments have sought to control the coronavirus narrative, reinforcing state authority through the use of crisis communications.
This is, however, not without cost. While the legislation against fake news is a relatively new phenomena, criticisms of it as yet another manifestation of the authoritarian legalism that is endemic to the region are not unfounded. Apart from concerns over how such legislation violates human rights, there are those in the moderate camp that feel that such laws are simply too sweeping and prone to abuse. Putting aside the question of legislation, the reality of the Southeast Asian situation is that many governments exercise a substantial degree of control over the media landscape. In Cambodia, television and radio networks are predominantly state-owned and broadcasts are overwhelmingly pro-government. In the Philippines, the high level of violence waged against journalists in the country has brought about voluntary regulatory mechanisms and reports of commenters being controlled and paid by the government to carry out online content manipulation are not new. Such deliberate government interference compromises objective media reporting and blurs the lines in the ongoing fight against disinformation.
Moreover, the strategy adopted by Southeast Asian governments to combat counternarratives goes beyond exerting influence and suppression. States have adopted a more holistic approach, attempting to pre-empt undesired narratives by aggressively filling the information space with narratives of their own. An example is the daily provision of statistical data highlighting the number of the new infections and deaths resulting from the virus. This is in essence a deliberate attempt at narrative construction. However, the use of statistical data as an accurate measure of success is debatable, oversimplifying the social, economic and political issues created by the pandemic. In extreme cases, the management of statistics override all other considerations, much like how the Vietnamese government has recently committed resources to keeping a British patient in critical condition alive.
Separating the Strategy of Crisis Communications from the Contest of Narratives
In a climate of competing narrative construction, the ‘crisis’ in Southeast Asia’s crisis communications have taken on new meaning. At times, trolls have deliberately spread disinformation by masquerading false messages as official crisis communications. On other occasions, Southeast Asian authorities are the ones actively using the strategy of crisis communications to augment its legitimacy and further its control. Has this push-back by governments against false narratives worked? By and large, compared to Western states, Southeast Asian governments enjoy a relatively large buffer of trust from their citizens to implement tougher measures in times of a crisis. At the moment however, measures taken by the authorities run the risk of squandering away public trust. Prioritising information control over information transparency creates a shroud of suspicion between citizens and governments that could end up perpetuating the cycle of disinformation. The verdict is therefore still out. However, given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it would be wiser for governments to exercise more subtlety when it comes to combating counternarratives. If crisis communications are to serve their original intent, they should remain untainted by disinformation and separated from this ongoing contest of narratives.
Wendy He and Ian Li are research analysts at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.