Social media, once seen as a driving force for democracy in Southeast Asia, is challenging traditional media business models and has been co-opted for partisan narratives and disinformation.
We are now seeing a perfect storm where the global pandemic has exacerbated financial pressures on journalism and has seen the state exercise greater control over the media.
Social media use is changing in response to these new realities: private messaging groups and hyper-local news are thriving, raising concerns over a more fractured and polarised society.
Southeast Asia’s media shift
Media has never been more personalised or participatory. Nowhere is this more evident than in Southeast Asia, where Facebook is described as ‘the internet’ in much of the Philippines and Myanmar, Jakarta was heralded as Twitter’s ‘capital city’, and Malaysia’s 60-year-long wait for a change of government in 2018 was declared ‘the WhatsApp election’.
Yet the problem is clear. Initially, ‘new’ media was a positive introduction to the media landscape in Southeast Asia that could usurp oligarch-controlled mainstream media. However, social media has moved from being a tool for grassroots activists to spread independent news to being a bastion of disinformation and fake news.
The past five years has seen ‘black’ campaigns – the slandering of candidates online – dominate elections in Southeast Asia as data analytics companies target voters in elections according to race and religion. Southeast Asia is now the home of ‘buzzers’, ‘trolls’, ‘clickfarmers’ and ‘cybertroopers’ as hate speech and misogyny grows, along with the targeting of activists, independent journalists and government critics.
The solution to some of our most pressing problems in the digital era is, in part, the maintenance, nurturing and even expansion of quality, professional journalism. But reputable media companies have seen their revenues plunge during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the pandemic rages, what is the future of the digital public sphere where more and more news is gathered from social media? This piece focuses on the largest democracies in the region: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Social media as the internet
Southeast Asia’s media landscape is changing faster than in the West. Over the past five years, Indonesia’s internet penetration grew from 20% to 65% of the population, Cambodia from under 10% to 50%, and Myanmar from under 5% to 35%. 1See Aim Sinpeng and Ross Tapsell (eds) (2020), From Grassroots Activism to Disinformation: Social media in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing). The rapid rise has occurred in large part due to the arrival of affordable Chinese-made Android smartphones. Southeast Asians have leapfrogged technology, going straight to the internet via smartphones.
While many social media companies proliferate in the Southeast Asian region, Facebook dominates. Phone providers immediately install the Facebook app on a new user’s phone. In a sign of Facebook’s ubiquity, when answering professional surveys many Indonesians citizens answer ‘no’ to having internet access but ‘yes’ to having Facebook. As Elisabeth Pisani wrote in her 2015 book about travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, ‘millions of Indonesians are on $2 a day and are on Facebook’. In 2018 there were 67 million Facebook accounts in the Philippines and 10 million Instagram accounts. The average time spent on social media had grown from 2.5 hours in 2014 to nearly 4 hours in 2018. 2Miguel R. Camus, ‘PH is world leader in social media usage’ Inquirer.net, 15 February 2018, Open.
Societies are undergoing extraordinary changes due to the digital revolution and the way in which people receive and value information. A voracious appetite for social media discourse continues to grow in Southeast Asia. A 2017 survey found that 87% of Filipinos who have internet access trust social media as a source of information. 3John Ballaran, ‘Online Filipinos trust social media more than traditional media – poll’, Inquirer.net, 29 August 2017, Open. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reported Malaysia as ‘the global leader for WhatsApp news usage‘. Just over half of news consumers surveyed in Malaysia use the platform to ‘find, share, or discuss news in a given week’.
Scholars are assessing these details in the wider context of a stark digital divide; the lack of digital literacy programs; and the ethnic, linguistic and religious community ‘echo chambers’ that are formed online. Indeed, 2020 marked a tipping point in the balance between online and traditional media: for the first time Indonesians spent more time watching internet videos than they did watching television.
Authoritarianism brought by television
This tipping point matters because television has long dominated the Indonesian media sphere. Such information shifts have a long and important history. Benedict Anderson’s ground-breaking work on nationalism – which noted that ‘print capitalism’ was central to the formation of the modern-day nation-state – began from his work in Java. Newspapers, he argued, enabled nationalists to promote the concept of a unified nation-state. As colonialism was upended due to the Second World War, vernacular print media became ‘revolutionary vehicles’ of a new kind of ‘sovereign community’.
Television’s introduction to Southeast Asia in the 1960s – with its centralised need for capital and communications infrastructure – was a perfect medium for authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia. Leaders such as Suharto in Indonesia (1965–1998), Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (1965–1986), Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore (1959–1990) and later Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia (1981–2003) used state television broadcasters to great effect, providing ‘top-down’ messages to the masses and stifling any criticism within the newsroom.
Indonesia’s military regime (1965–1998), for example, used television as the national teacher of Bahasa Indonesia and to legitimise the ongoing leadership of President Suharto. In 1971, TVRI still only reached around 5% of the Indonesian population. By 1983 it reached 64%, and by the mid-1990s the network had expanded to 27 regional stations and 7,000 employees, and reached 82% of the population. 4Ross Tapsell (2017), Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution (London: Rowman and Littlefield), pp. 6–8.
Indonesian scholar Veven Wardhana believed television had ‘taken over the role of parents in educating and developing the character of children’. Some of the challenges permeating journalism culture in Indonesia and Malaysia today, including a reluctance to question official narratives, is in no small part due to television’s dominance in the latter part of the 20th century.
It was not until the arrival of the internet in the late 1990s that much of the region’s information society shifted. The internet’s arrival coincided with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which ultimately threw the aging structures of authoritarian rule into disarray. The internet provided a space for urban middle classes to express discontent and to comment on political issues, organise rallies and encourage civil society actors to engage with each other in a very short period.
The Jakarta-based internet wire service, Joyo Indonesia News Service, for example, grew its mailing list from 6 in 1996 to 4,000 in 1998 5Ibid, p. 16. as it used the new ‘world wide web’ to collect and disseminate news to journalists each day. Online news sites that were innovative burgeoned. Detik.com in Indonesia was producing as-it-happens content online a decade before Twitter. Malaysiakini.com developed a financially viable subscription market long before The New York Times. Although the overall democratic gains in the region were not even in all Southeast Asian countries, reform agendas in Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia and Myanmar increased at the same time as the arrival and/or significant growth of the internet.
It is apparent that Southeast Asia’s information society was already shifting prior to the digital era. Print capitalism and the end of the Second World War ushered in the nation-state; television’s dominance played a central role in generating authoritarianism; and the internet’s arrival coupled with the Asian financial crisis created a more networked and democratic civil society. What then, can we expect from digital media amid a global pandemic?
It is now well recognised that the internet and digital technologies are placing news media businesses in financial turmoil. Put simply, where internet penetration rises, print media circulation, television audiences and advertising revenues decline. In the 2000s, media companies were not overly worried: the internet’s dominance simply meant news could be uploaded online. But digital advertising revenues did not keep up with the pace of change in audience preferences. And then Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter, after it was initially dismissed by cynics as people posting ‘what they had for breakfast’) grew exponentially to become a central platform for disseminating news.
From 2010 to 2015, the buzzword for media companies was ‘convergence’. A singular platform was no longer financially viable, so media companies became ‘digital conglomerates’: multiplatform organisations that owned print, radio and television outlets, as well as cable providers and even satellites. Weak or non-existent cross-media ownership laws in Southeast Asia meant this process happened faster and more easily than could occur in the West.
For example, Indonesian conglomerate TransCorp, which already owned two national television stations, bought Detik.com for reportedly USD 60 million in 2011, then added Cable News Network Indonesia a few years later, as well as a cable TV provider, TransVision. Some conglomerates even invested in social media companies such as Path (which for a short time looked like it was booming in Southeast Asia) and WeChat. The idea was to centralise newsgathering in one hub in the capital, which would then distribute content nationally, and for media organisations to venture into ecommerce, banking, finance, events, sports, transport, gaming and much more. Big media companies were becoming bigger in the digital era, while smaller media companies were either being bought up by these ‘digital conglomerates’ or were shutting down.
But becoming a ‘digital conglomerate’ requires a lot of capital investment, and most print media outlets that ventured into becoming multiplatform media companies have been bleeding money. Indonesia’s Tempo Group, for example, is a bastion of independent journalism in the country, forged through its weekly investigative journalism magazine, Tempo. Its forays to establish daily newspaper Koran Tempo, online news site Tempo.com and digital television station TempoTV all failed to make the company significant money. 6See Ross Tapsell, Media Power in Indonesia.
Star Media Group in Malaysia, publisher of the well-established The Star newspaper, said in an internal circular that 300 staff would be retrenched by the end of 2020. 7‘Star Media to undertake another retrenchment’, New Straits Times, 15 September 2020, Open. This came amidst conjecture that the company’s video on demand venture, Dimsum, had suffered losses of more than AUD 35 million 8Samantha Ho, ‘Cover story: Dimsum a cash-burning wild card’, The Edge Markets, 4 October 2018, Open. even prior to the pandemic. Expansion thus caused greater financial headaches. As advertising revenues decline during Covid-19, these companies are looking to downsize.
Even for the largest conglomerates, the future is uncertain. Media Prima, Malaysia’s biggest government-owned media conglomerate, had to lower operating expenses in the wake of an uncertain media environment and the price of its stock dropping from 2016 to 2020. 9Tan Siew Mung, ‘Media Prima rises as much as 14% after returning to black’, The Edge Markets, 19 November 2020, Open. As any Southeast Asian media executive will tell you, audience market share on television is the domain of entertainment shows and soap operas largely pitched to older audiences. As Netflix and other streaming sites grow, projections show a steady decline in television viewership among young people, particularly so for television news.
New digital players
The upending of existing information structures has provided opportunities for new players in the news business to break into youth audience markets. Examples include Tirto and Kumparan in Indonesia, and the Malay Mail in Malaysia. A pioneer in this space was Rappler in the Philippines. Founded in Manila by former CNN journalist Maria Ressa and others, Rappler aimed to take advantage of a vast audience regularly on Facebook on their mobile phones, ready and willing to consume video and written content and to engage with content via comments. Rappler staff said that initially around 70% of engagement with Rappler was driven by social media, largely Facebook.
But in 2015, Facebook changed its algorithms. As Ressa told me in a 2018 interview, ‘The end of 2015 was the turning point for the world [because] that’s when Facebook did “instant articles”, when they brought newsgroups in [to every other post]. They used the exact same algorithms you would use for whatever you had for breakfast. It’s not a popularity game, it became mob rule and it was used by bad actors.’
Rather than Facebook driving readers to news organisations to help them gain ad revenues, Facebook’s algorithm change meant legitimate news posts were hidden among all the other posts on the site, including clickbait and ‘Floggers’ (Facebook bloggers), who engaged readers via scandalous content. More clicks to these sites meant fewer for Rappler, and soon the Floggers and the fake news peddlers dominated the homepage of many Filipinos. Ironically, Rappler‘s business model needed to move more towards organic news searches from Google and other search engines to make it less vulnerable to Facebook’s algorithmic changes.
The Philippines – often said to have the freest media environment in Asia – soon became ground zero for the battle of disinformation. Rodrigo Duterte’s election victory, run on a populist campaign against drugs and crime, proved perfect for our contemporary information society. It preceded the similarly populist campaigns of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro. A year prior to the election, the Duterte public relations team started creating content in various parts of the country. The content was presented and packaged initially as entertainment stories and ‘snackable’ digital content, usually in the form of very short 15-to-30-second videos. Key messages and content would be delivered weekly via top-down instructions from leading public relations agencies in Manila.
The plan worked, as key Floggers became ‘influencers’ of politics, and other groups like ‘Duterte Die-hard Supporters’ and groups of overseas Filipino workers had their voices amplified. At the same time, some people were employed to create fake stories about drugs and crime, therefore exacerbating the urgency of Duterte’s populist messages of the Philippines as a ‘narco state’.
News organisations that questioned the need for a war on drugs, which included thousands of extra-judicial killings by police, were attacked online by trolls. The trolling and fake accounts continued after the election. In September 2020, Facebook took down misleading content on 57 pages, 31 accounts, and 20 Instagram accounts linked to the Philippines military and police. 10Victor Barreiro Jr, ‘Facebook removes fake network linked to AFP, PNP’, Rappler, 23 September 2020, Open.
Ressa had hoped to use social media to help grow and nurture democracy. Instead, the Philippines has become a centre for disinformation. Ressa said, ‘The propaganda has actually hit Rappler to the point that there’s a segment of society that believes we’re lying to them. It is so easy to manipulate reality right now … social media has enabled that and our population is so vulnerable to it.’ Not only was Rappler being discredited, but it was also threatened with legal action by the Duterte administration. In the case of the Philippines, one of the largest television stations, ABS-CBN, shut down completely.
The digital landscape in the Philippines is important because it shows that the concern of many media executives goes beyond establishing a successful business model. When I interviewed some of the leading independent media executives in the Philippines, they spoke of the trolls hindering the business’s bottom line. ‘It’s a double whammy,’ Rappler CEO Glenda Gloria said. ‘It’s not just coming from the state but also [from] this technology shift that’s really making a mess out of the industry. So, the revenue of Rappler also dropped this year but on account largely of government harassment.’
From citizen control to state control
This trend of state digital attacks are most prominent in the Philippines, but recent years has also seen Indonesian activists hacked. At the same time, Indonesia Corruption Watch found that, according to ministerial budgets, the Jokowi government spent over 90 billion rupiah (USD 6 million) on online ‘influencers’. 11Moch. Fiqih Prawira Adjie, ‘Jokowi administration spends 90.4 billion on “influencers”‘: ICW’, The Jakarta Post, 20 August 2020, Open. The figure, of course, does not include any independent funds directed towards ‘buzzers’ by those who promote the Jokowi government’s agendas.
2020 also saw Malaysia’s cybertroopers fuelling racist narratives against foreign workers, resulting in police investigations into both domestic and international media outlets whose reports questioned the Malaysian government’s handling of foreign workers during the pandemic.
And that’s just in the freer media countries in Southeast Asia. Others, where China’s presence looms large, are spending significant state resources on social media monitoring and propaganda. Vietnam is said to have a 10,000-strong cyber unit called Force 47 tasked with maintaining a ‘healthy’ internet environment. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had at one point 9 million Facebook likes, ranking him third in engagement among world leaders – yet 80% of his likes came from ‘clickfarm’ countries where likes can be purchased. 12Shaun Turton, ‘Only 20 per cent of PM’s recent Facebook “likes” from Camobdia’, The Phnom Penh Post, 9 March 2016, Open.
In less than a decade, the digital media landscape has shifted in terms of whose political agency has been most empowered by digitalisation. Initially, the internet and social media provided greater agency to citizen journalists and new media startups, whose social media-driven content could bypass the elite structures of mainstream media to reach a wider section of society. Then, powerful media oligarchs successfully adapted, forming digital conglomerates to attempt to dominate the professional media space.
But the digital sphere became weaponised by political actors who could afford to hire extensive cohorts of digital labourers to dominate the social media discourse. Being the subject of a ‘black campaign’ on social media became every election candidate’s greatest fear. Soon they all started to hire their own teams of cybertroopers. Finally, as this digital labour became successful in shaping news and information online, it was increasingly used by states to manage dissent and legitimise their rule. We are now seeing a perfect storm, where state resources are being poured into a financially precarious journalism industry as the global pandemic justifies greater controls over the media.
A growing need for independent newsrooms
Covid-19 has not caused the decline of independent journalism; it has simply enhanced what has long been a trend in our changing information societies. Or, as one Southeast Asian media executive put it, Covid-19 is ‘the last nail in the coffin’ for many media companies. In one example of the dire state of media throughout the pandemic, The Jakarta Post decided to lay off around 120 staff (two-thirds of its labour force) in August 2020. An internal meeting circular shared widely on WhatsApp stated that the Post could only operate if 30% of its revenue went towards journalists and editors. A report looking at 140 local media companies in Indonesia found they had lost between 40% and 80% of their advertising income in 2020. 13‘Survei: 70,2 persen media terkena dampak Covid-19’, Koran Tempo, 24 July 2020, Open.
Despite the flourishing of digital communications and information via social media, which were supposed to be revolutionary for democracy and freedom of expression, if Rappler in the Philippines, Prachatai in Thailand, Tempo in Indonesia and Malaysiakini in Malaysia were to be taken away, it would be like removing a vital organ from Southeast Asia’s democratic body. This is not to say other news agencies, both big and small, do not play a part. But these four organisations have been crucial to Southeast Asia’s bold, independent investigative journalism landscape, much of which mainstream media, social media discourse and reformist activity ultimately feeds on.
Media executives at these companies continue to hold out hope of growing individual reader subscriptions. But subscriptions are not growing at the pace needed to make up for the advertising revenue they have lost. We are all used to accessing sites like Facebook, Google and Instagram for free. News executives privately say the best-case scenario is that it will take another decade before subscriptions will make subscription-based companies viable.
Surveys have for some time shown that we consistently spend more and more time on the internet, yet claim we ‘don’t have time’ to consume news on television or radio or by reading a newspaper. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have done so well at encouraging us to produce and consume our own content that we have prioritised our own personalised activities rather than spending time (let alone money) on consuming longer-form news and information.
But rather than feeling ill-informed, many young people describe feeling ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘exhausted’ with the amount of content available to them online. The cacophony of platforms and sites and messages and groups chats and hashtags and photos and videos (all complete with never-ending notifications on our phones) leave us feeling like we are drowning in digital information.
Add to that the paid ‘buzzers’ arguing at every point, the clickbait, and the fake news content that encourages even more angry posting, and many are yearning for less content, not more. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the 2019 book title, Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, a solution to our current predicament that leaves news practitioners aghast.
Sheltering in private groups
As this crisis of journalism has unfolded, state actors have not only refused to help, but have encouraged and in many cases increased the pressure on independent media. While we might expect crackdowns from military-dominated regimes in mainland Southeast Asia, and from authoritarian leaders like Hun Sen and Duterte, state pressure has mounted even under leaders who came to power via democratic means, such as Joko Widodo.
Their rise to power was in no small part due to a more flourishing online media environment. Digital surveillance and significant state budgets for the digital sphere will continue to be a growing trend even in democracies, and the greatest actor in the disinformation space, and the greatest threat to independent media, remains the state itself.
Faced with the threat of a crackdown by the state, citizens are increasingly cautious about what they say online. Anti-government bloggers – once heralded as the vanguard in an emerging free expression space – are now largely irrelevant among youths, drowned out by social media discourse and the more apolitical photo-sharing platform Instagram. Anonymity online and on sites like Twitter was once seen as an exciting way to spread news and information in societies with a censored media. Anonymity and impunity has instead become a key driver of misogyny and racism on the platform.
But the biggest shift caused by fear of crackdown is the rise of discourse via closed messenger groups, especially WhatsApp in Indonesia and Malaysia, LINE in Thailand, and Facebook Messenger in the Philippines. In Malaysia, the 2018 election was described by a major newspaper as the ‘WhatsApp’ election. Teams of campaigners were arranged to form WhatsApp groups of 250 people (the limit) in their constituencies and then to spread information about various political stories, as well as campaign material and even fake news. This allowed for stories about corruption and nepotism to flourish. The election brought about a change of government for the first time in Malaysia’s 60-year history.
Closed groups present enormous challenges for media companies, who are far less able to gauge audience sentiment and shares (and therefore to provide data to advertisers) and to then produce quality news itself.
Social goes local
Consumption is evolving rapidly on social media and messenger platforms. But does this mean the death of news? It is at the local level where the shift to social media news is most prevalent, and most interesting. As local newspapers die out, it is often assumed that this is the end of local news. Instead, what is occurring in Southeast Asia is the rise of local Facebook and Instagram news pages, which claim to be independent.
These sites claim to make enough money to pay their staff to scan local social media sites and report (somewhat) on local matters such as traffic, police activity and local politics. These sites typically have around 50,000 to 100,000 followers. They post links to their website, as well as photos and videos. They also post content from established media outlets, as well as other material pertaining to local news going ‘viral’ on social media. Preliminary interviews with facilitators of these sites suggests they make about as much money as an entry-level local journalist for a regional newspaper.
Perhaps these social media platforms are the future of local journalism: hyper-local, relevant, entertaining and citizen-led. But will they be independent? To date they say taking money from politicians or the government for promotional material would damage their brand and they would lose the small, engaged audience that is the key to their business.
But as seen in Duterte’s Philippines, local Facebook pages can end up being coordinated pages aiming to promote a certain political agenda like the war on drugs. Whether it be through a coordinated set-up or simply to drive ‘clicks’ and engagement, there’s undoubtedly concern over the ease with which these local sites could be manipulated.
So, if vernacular newspapers in Southeast Asia built a ‘sovereign community’, closed messenger groups or localised Instagram news sites have the potential to do the opposite, breaking up society into smaller ‘bubbles’ of identity politics and polarising societies. Citizens gathering news predominantly within their own bubbles will shape what they define as ‘propaganda’, ‘facts’ and ‘truth’, as we are seeing globally with the rise of conspiracy theories around QAnon, 5G networks, anti-vaxxers and much more. How social media platforms convey trust (or not) in a vaccine will shape our ability to enter a ‘post-pandemic’ world. Trust in local Instagram news sites and WhatsApp groups may indeed determine whether individuals even get a vaccine.
In the long term, social media as news disseminator is the key to whether citizens believe their government is largely trustworthy or not, and ultimately what kind of economic and political structures people think are viable in the post-pandemic era.
See Aim Sinpeng and Ross Tapsell (eds) (2020), From Grassroots Activism to Disinformation: Social media in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing).
Miguel R. Camus, ‘PH is world leader in social media usage’ Inquirer.net, 15 February 2018, http://business.inquirer.net/246015/ph-world-leader-social-media-usage.
John Ballaran, ‘Online Filipinos trust social media more than traditional media – poll’, Inquirer.net, 29 August 2017, https://technology.inquirer.net/66402/filipinos-online-trust-social-media-traditional-media-poll.
Ross Tapsell (2017), Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution (London: Rowman and Littlefield), pp. 6–8.
Ibid, p. 16.
See Ross Tapsell, Media Power in Indonesia.
‘Star Media to undertake another retrenchment’, New Straits Times, 15 September 2020, https://www.nst.com.my/business/2020/09/624769/star-media-undertake-another-retrenchment.
Samantha Ho, ‘Cover story: Dimsum a cash-burning wild card’, The Edge Markets, 4 October 2018, https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/cover-story-dimsum-cashburning-wild-card.
Tan Siew Mung, ‘Media Prima rises as much as 14% after returning to black’, The Edge Markets, 19 November 2020, https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/media-prima-rises-much-14-after-returning-black.
Victor Barreiro Jr, ‘Facebook removes fake network linked to AFP, PNP’, Rappler, 23 September 2020, https://www.rappler.com/technology/social-media/facebook-removes-philippine-chinese-networks.
Moch. Fiqih Prawira Adjie, ‘Jokowi administration spends 90.4 billion on “influencers”‘: ICW’, The Jakarta Post, 20 August 2020, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/08/20/jokowi-administration-spends-rp-90-4-billion-on-influencers-icw.html.
Shaun Turton, ‘Only 20 per cent of PM’s recent Facebook “likes” from Camobdia’, The Phnom Penh Post, 9 March 2016, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/only-20-cent-pms-recent-facebook-likes-cambodia.
‘Survei: 70,2 persen media terkena dampak Covid-19’, Koran Tempo, 24 July 2020, https://koran.tempo.co/read/peristiwa/455889/media-covid-19-bisnis.