When the printing press first began spreading throughout Europe in the 15thand 16thcenturies, it brought with it a revolution in and democratization of ideas. Scripture and scientific text were spread rapidly and was readily accessible to the masses for the first time. The church’s role as the gatekeepers and purveyors of information lessened with the advent of new technology.
Upheaval was not far behind and the printing press played a central role in the reformation led by Martin Luther and the split of the Catholic Church. At this time, the leadership of the church tried to suppress the dissemination of these ideas and the technology which allowed them to flourish.
But their attempts were in vain and the world entered a new epoch, one which eventually gave birth to the renaissance and more importantly, the enlightenment. The ideas which we now take for granted, freedom of religion, of speech, and the right to liberty had its beginnings in a technological revolution.
Each time that there has been scientific progress which threatened the status quo of the traditional gatekeepers, there have been attempts by the gatekeepers or the government to lessen the effects of the technology. These attempts have usually been in vain and against the tides of ‘progress.’
Consider the widespread coverage of the Vietnam War by US television networks. For the first time, armed conflict was brought into the living rooms of the average household. The pictures and videos of wounded and dying soldiers turned the tide of public sentiment against the Nixon administration and prolonged prosecution of the war. Of course, both Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger tried to control the spread and use of these images but to no avail.
The modern battlefield
Today, social media has become the new technology and new battleground that threatens the status quo and the traditional gatekeepers of information. Widespread access to the internet has leveled the playing field in terms of who gets to provide information, in what context, and for whom. Not only are there no more gatekeepers of information, there is no more gate.
Obviously, some actors have taken advantage of this situation for their own ends. Whether it is fake news farms capitalizing on ad revenue, or foreign influencers using social media to affect the outcome of political situations overseas, social media has engendered these developments.
I was privileged enough to attend a recent Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF) meeting in Brussels where discussions were had over how to best confront these challenges without infringing on freedom of speech.
Many good ideas were put forward. Fact checking, investing in media literacy and continued good traditional journalism are all important endeavors that can keep the deluge of social media news in check.
To regulate or not
One issue that repeatedly came up was whether governments should attempt to regulate the social media space, and many people argued passionately that they should. After all, social media influencers and fake news have given rise to the administration of Donald Trump, been used to proliferate rumors leading to a genocide in Myanmar, seen a human rights catastrophe in the Philippines, and continues to be a disruptive influence on European Union (EU) politics.
The argument was put forth that in the EU, these far-right parties, advocating a return to 1930s politics, were given too much space to spread their hateful views online. The governments of the EU could do so much to curb their influence by regulating hate speech and fake news in these online forums.
While I could see the merits of their arguments, I do not believe that such legislation would translate well to Asia and the developing world. While the journalists and politicians of Europe may have altruistic notions at heart, the people who inhabit my area of the world have seen too often where government regulations go. Any legislation introduced by the EU would provide the necessary pretext for their introduction in this area of the world.
I do not disagree that fake news and social media have become problematic in my own backyard but I fear the types of legislation that might be introduced to monitor and restrict those spaces. I fear that eventually these laws that were meant to clamp down on fake news would eventually be abused to perpetuate the rule of despots and dictators.
We are only a generation removed from Marcos, Pol Pot, Suharto, Mao Zedong and others. The governments of this part of the world are still young, and in the case of my own country, Thailand – still totalitarian. The institutions that democracy should ideally stand on are not yet in place to withstand the legal ramifications of such legislature.
If the EU took a leadership position in calling for regulation, these ‘Third World despots’ (forgive my Western education) would point to their example and justify introducing their own. Even without the EU, countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand have in place or are in the process of introducing harmful media regulations that human rights group say are aimed at curbing criticism and dissent.
One only has to look at the arrest of the two Reuters journalists in Myanmar under an ancient law leftover from the British Raj to know the destructive potential of misplaced legislation. Furthermore, such legislation to curb technology will undoubtedly fail, just ask Nixon and the Catholic Church. Instead of wasting time and giving excuses to despots, the effort should be to educate, to promote good journalism, and to shore up the values that started 600 years ago in Gutenberg’s back room.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.