On-line disinformation is an trade that wants regulation, says boffin • The Register

According to Dr. Ross Tapsell, a senior lecturer and researcher at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, should treat society as a product of a regulated industry rather than a crime committed by individuals.

“Trust in the media is waning,” said Tapsell, who further pointed out that this trend is global, but has intensified in Southeast Asia and Malaysia. The researcher added that those who do not trust the media will turn to informal channels for information and news.

Tapsell is director of the Malaysia Institute at ANU – one of the world’s leading academic institutions for the study of Malaysia, established both to advance understanding of Malaysian studies and to promote relations between Australia and Malaysia.

Malaysia is considered a pioneer in the advancement of the digital media industry and some studies say the country has the highest WhatsApp usage per capita. With high usage and a cultural tendency to discuss public issues in digital areas, there is a trend towards campaigns and marketing via WhatsApp and similar online platforms. And such operations are accompanied by negative campaigns, which often fall into the category of misinformation and disinformation.

In 2018, Malaysia introduced an anti-fake news law, the first of its kind in the world. Under the law, anyone who publishes or disseminates misleading information could spend up to six years in prison.

The law has tagged online service providers for third-party content and anyone could bring charges. This is problematic because fake news is often not specific or definable and exists in a constantly changing gray area. Any fake news regulation brings with it a whole host of problems with freedom of expression and questions about how the law could be shamefully used – to silence political opponents, for example.

Tapsell described issues he saw from the ground with the Malaysian bill, including citizens threatening others online with police action and a deterioration in public discourse.

The law was repealed in 2019 after it was seen as a tool to suppress political opponents rather than protecting Malaysians from harmful information. But in early 2021, Malaysia used the emergency powers to once again turn the spread of fake news about COVID-19 into a criminal offense, punishable by fines of up to RM 100,000 ($ 23,800) and possible prison terms.

Having experienced all of this before, Tapsell argued that disinformation shouldn’t be treated as an illegal act, but rather as an industry – with gamblers having their own motivations, entrepreneurial or otherwise. And like any industry, it should be regulated.

“Rather than adopting the usual ‘guns’ narrative on social media, I will argue that the challenges of contemporary ‘infodemia’ are part of a growing digital media industry and a rapidly changing information society,” wrote Tapsell in describing his seminar.

But how can you regulate something like that? The ANU researcher said that solutions will not be found in laws and increased police intervention, but “through the creation and development of a robust, critical and trustworthy digital media landscape”.

An example would be the electoral process, where watchdog agencies took on the role of digital campaigns during election periods. Tapsell called for such efforts to be financed more appropriately, just as television advertising is regulated.

As for Big Tech’s role in shouting fake news, Tapsell believes that as a unit it could be more effective than other existing sources.

“It’s not bad naming and shaming bad actors, and it’s good that Facebook is starting out,” said the boffin. He explained that while local journalists and researchers could retaliate for exposing fake news providers, it was more difficult to get revenge against a big company and platform, and therefore it would be safer for big tech to play that role take over.

He recognized the efforts social media platforms are making to identify and stop coordinated behavior and work to make such actions less lucrative, but felt that there was more to be done.

“They’re still relying too much on independent researchers in the field to uncover these,” said Tapsell. “That’s not our job – that’s the job of the big companies in Silicon Valley.” ®

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