DigitalReach, an organization founded in Southeast Asia in 2019 with the aim of protecting digital rights and internet freedom in the region, has warned about the rampant spread of false information that could negatively affect public opinion and elections. The organization has also cautioned that governments might take restrictive measures, such as censoring social media platforms, to combat disinformation.
According to Digital Reach’s Digital Rights in Southeast Asia 2023 report, short-form videos such as those found on TikTok played a significant role in the 2022 elections in the Philippines and Malaysia.
In Malaysia, the organization said that such videos, which contain right-wing narratives, are difficult to fact-check due to the complexity of local contexts and non-verbal cues. In the Philippines, short videos were used to mask historical events such as Martial Law, and rival political parties used them to attack each other online.
Digital Reach has warned that the proliferation of short videos could significantly influence the quality of information shared online during future elections in Southeast Asia. While TikTok has taken measures to combat disinformation by leveraging AI and collaborating with the Commission of Elections in the Philippines and the AFP news agency, Digital Reach believes that the platform is still lacking and could pose a threat to democracy and human rights if urgent and rigid actions are not taken.
The organization noted that several Southeast Asian countries have already passed legislation restricting freedom of expression on social media, including Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Digital Reach warns that if these laws are used to remove content without any oversight or regulation from the judiciary or independent parties, governments could use them to suppress opposing views.
In the Philippines, if such legislation is passed, it could endanger freedom of expression in the country, similar to what happened when the National Telecommunications Commission forced internet service providers to restrict access to “communist rebel” sites.
Digital Reach suggests a different approach, advocating for a localized strategy for digital security. This approach involves assigning contact persons to address digital and surveillance attacks, providing better facilities for supporting advocates, and improving threat monitoring. The organization believes that this approach will lead to increased accountability and democracy.