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Study: Govt agencies and PR firms among main actors of disinformation in Malaysia

Study: Govt agencies and PR firms among main actors of disinformation in Malaysia

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Government agencies, political parties, foreign-based or local PR firms, and content companies are among the actors that initiate, develop and implement disinformation campaigns in Malaysia to influence voter behaviour. According to a recent report by Asia Centre titled "Youth and disinformation in Malaysia: Strengthening Electoral Integrity", political disinformation is not new in Malaysia and has been delivered via mainstream, alternative, and social media.

The report cited government agencies, political parties, and campaign managers as the first set of actors who are at the top of the disinformation chain. These actors commission disinformation to quell criticism, discredit political opponents, and manipulate information flow and public opinion. The report added that they often keep some distance from the implementers of the commissioned disinformation to have room for plausible deniability.

At the middle are foreign-based or local PR or consulting firms, content companies, government-owned/friendly media, civil society organisations and individual contractors. These actors study the political situation, thereafter, develop a disinformation strategy based on their clients' requirements, draft the political content, design relevant graphics, produce videos and pass it down for dissemination.

Finally, at the bottom level of the disinformation chain are actors including hardliners, bots and paid or voluntary cyber troopers. According to the report, these are the ones that disseminate the prepared disinformation, run online campaigns to manipulate social media narratives, share fake news to undermine the reputation of political rivals, and promote positively with false content specific parties or politicians. Due to the high Internet penetration in Malaysia and diverse online social network, the bulk of disinformation is spread via social media and messaging apps.

Five recurring patterns of disinformation

Political disinformation is among the four types of misinformation identified in the report, including click-bait, hate speech, and foreign interference. In Malaysia, political disinformation is "intensified and widely deployed in the run-up to, during and post-elections". Asia Centre reviewed media reports and studies that referenced the last five general elections from 1999 to 2018, uncovering five recurring patterns of disinformation.

These largely revolve around issues related to sexual orientation and promiscuity; corruption; electoral integrity; women politicians and foreign interference. To date, legal and non-legal measures remain largely ineffective against political disinformation. The existing legislations include the Penal Code, the Printing Presses and Publication Act; the Communication and Multimedia Act, the Anti-Fake News Act and Emergency Ordinance (No.2).

The report explained that provisions in existing laws and the revoked anti-fake news law and emergency ordinance are vague and place authority in the hands of government authorities who can use these laws against policy critics. Similarly, non-legal measures initiated by government agencies, government-linked companies and non-government initiatives by politicians in government are seen as one-sided and politically biased. The youths are set to vote in the upcoming General Election and this trend runs the risk of their voting behaviour being manipulated.

Ways to safeguard against disinformation and who should be responsible

The report identified different groups who can help safeguard the country against disinformation, from tech companies to the government, media and political parties. 

1. Technology companies

They can act by monitoring and removing disinformatio circulated on their platforms during and in between elections. They can also be proactive in tackling disinformation on their platforms by flagging false information and removing or taking down false information. They can also promote digital and media literacy among users.

2. Government

The government can tackle this issue by amending legislations criminalising disinfirmation to make them compatible with international standards. However, these legal measures should not be used to curb freedom of expression in Malaysia. The government should also refrain from sponsoring or encouraging disinformation and social media manipulation campaigns. It can also promote media and digital literacy by supporting these topics in the regular school curriculum and engaging with NGOs to raise awareness.

3. Media

The media also plays a crucial role in the fight against disinformation. They should adhere to professional and ethical standards for accuracy in the news, and take the lead in fact-checking by debunking false information. They should also provide the public with accurate and verified electoral information and raise public awareness about the negative impact of political disinformation.

4. Political parties

Political parties can also play their party by refraining from mudslinging and cease politicising religion which the report said may lead to social exclusion and polarisation. They should also run political campaigns with accurate and verified content.

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