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Dealing with misinformation and falsehood in Southeast Asia

While misinformation is a common problem faced by both enterprises and consumers today, the reality is the growing desire to get information at speed is fueling it. Today, misinformation can come from almost anywhere and in whatever form.

In fact, misinformation has become so rampant in some places whereby some governments have had to come up with laws to control the spread of information. This includes censorship and control over freedom of speech.

When it comes to online misinformation, the sources are neverending. From unverified reports on news sites to a simple Tweet or message on social media, all it takes is one small spark to ignite a chain reaction of consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years saw misinformation at its peak. Till today, there are still many that are confused, unsure, and doubtful over the information that is given to them. For example, when it comes to vaccines, misinformation by anti-vaxxers has caused delays in vaccine rates in some countries.

For businesses, misinformation can make or break an organization. Be it small SMEs or large enterprises, any form of misinformation online or offline can impact decision-making processes and such. As businesses become more data-driven, access to accurate data is key in ensuring productivity is not affected and disruptions are avoided.

In Southeast Asia, over the past ten years, Google Search Trends show an overall increase across the region for terms related to fake news, misinformation, disinformation, fact-check, and such.

From online information about the Ivermectin drug as an effective Covid-19 treatment in Singapore to the increase in disinformation about presidential candidates during the ongoing Philippines election campaigns, 440 million internet users (and more) in Southeast Asia continue to be at risk of the dangers of online misinformation and falsehoods.

As Southeast Asia continues on its trajectory towards a US$1 trillion internet economy by 2030, users must be equipped to fact-check online information to stay safe and reap the benefits of the internet

Tech Wire Asia speaks to Stephanie Davis, Vice President at Google Southeast Asia to understand how misinformation and falsehood online can be dealt with by both organizations and consumers today.

What is the biggest challenge in dealing with misinformation and falsehood online today?


Stephanie Davis, Vice President, Google Southeast Asia. (Source – Singapore Computer Society)

Online misinformation is an ever-evolving threat, and the rate at which people in the region are coming online means more people are becoming vulnerable to threats every day. Sometimes it may seem like the acceleration of the internet population is outpacing our efforts to combat misinformation as bad actors take advantage of novice users and their lack of sophistication.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Disinformation runs counter to our mission and everything that Google and its products set out to achieve. That is why we invest heavily to counter efforts seeking to deceive, harm, or take advantage of users, and to curb the spread of low-quality information on our services.

As more people continue to come online, they will need the right set of skills to assess the type of information they are finding, what’s safe for them to engage with, or how to help their kids develop healthy digital habits. Providing those skills is a true challenge, and at Google, we’re always asking the question, “how do we ensure people feel confident online and can unlock new opportunities while staying safe from scams and misinformation?”

The good news is people are becoming more aware of the dangers of falsehoods, and governments, communities, and private companies like Google are able to do their part to fight misinformation.

It takes a collective effort and a multi-layered approach to fight misinformation and falsehoods. This is why we work with fact-checkers and journalists in a lot of countries to reach more people, and partner with media literacy experts to develop training that will help everyone be better at spotting disinformation.

Google is also continuously monitoring what is being put up and refining our content removal policies to stay current, as well as designing systems that surface quality information for people in a crowded online world. Taking an even more proactive approach, both Google and YouTube also provide helpful information panels based on authoritative sources, to keep people abreast of accurate information during important events, such as national elections or when Covid-19 was at its peak.

One of the biggest problems of misinformation and fake news is the desire and demand from audiences in getting such information and spreading it without checking. Is there any way to avoid this?

Fake news is created to grab attention and play on our emotions, which is why we saw a sharp rise in falsehoods and the spread of misinformation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed a lot of communities to life-threatening consequences.

To avoid or prevent this, we need to constantly remind people to be vigilant about the information they consume and share, and hopefully checking, confirming, or validating information becomes second nature to all of us. Practically speaking, we need to put in more resources to raise awareness of the harmful effects of spreading such falsehoods and provide people with simple tools and tips on how to be discerning before sharing online content with family or friends.

One of the five questions that fact-checkers ask themselves – and my personal go-to – is “Is it shocking, or trying to drum up fear or hate?” If it is, then that is when you need to double-check the source and hold off on pressing that share button.

Is censorship one of the best ways to control misinformation?

While misinformation runs counter to the core of our mission, we sincerely believe that censorship is never the right answer.

We care deeply about creating a safe and secure online environment for everyone, and that’s why we have product policies and community guidelines on YouTube and Google to protect our users from content we believe is harmful. It allows us to keep the platforms safe while still giving users the freedom to share a broad range of experiences and perspectives on our platforms.

The best way is to take a multi-pronged approach that encourages collective action. A key part of this is equipping users with fact-checking skills so that they are well-placed to protect themselves, discern the accuracy of the content that they consume, and help spread the knowledge to others too.

Without the partnership of various fact-checking groups, press associations, and trusted organizations, we would not be able to tackle the problem of misinformation and help people get access to credible information quickly.

To this end, Google.org is helping the ASEAN Foundation with a $1.5 million grant to address misinformation in all 10 ASEAN member states. By working with local organizations in each country, the ASEAN Foundation hopes to equip over 1,000 trainers with the right knowledge and skills to deliver media literacy training to more than 100,000 people in local communities.