A webinar series spotlighting key issues on misinformation and disinformation in elections, hybrid warfare, and social media regulation in the digital age was organised by the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at RSIS on 21, 23, and 25 March 2022. The series was titled “DRUMS: Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears”.
The first webinar was focused on the use of misinformation and disinformation strategies such as sock puppets and disinformation-for-hire during elections in Asia. The speakers were Dr Taberez Neyazian, an Assistant Professor from the National University of Singapore; Ms Klara Esti, a Senior Research Associate from the Centre for Innovation and Governance; and Dr Jonathan Ong, an Associate Professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Dr Neyazi spoke on the growing use of misinformation to serve politically motivated agendas in India and Asia. He also emphasised the need for a standardised political advertising policy across developing markets to curb the spread of both intentional and unintentional misinformation. Ms Esti provided her insights into the industry of political buzzing in Indonesia and how integrated regulatory frameworks were needed to govern this industry. She also stressed the requirement for improved social media literacy and a deeper understanding of the actors involved in such an industry. Dr Ong shared his research on the disinformation shadow economy in the Philippines and highlighted the inadequacy of current mitigation strategies, which were focused on un-masking low-level trolls.
Speaking at the second webinar were Mr Ross Burley, Executive Director of the Centre for Information Resilience; Dr Jan Šir, a Senior Fellow from Charles University; Dr Aaron Erlich, an Associate Professor from McGill University; and Dr James Pamment, an Associate Professor from Lund University. The session outlined the disinformation and hybrid warfare strategies deployed in Ukraine, and examined how societal resilience could be built.
Dr Burley highlighted the importance of using credible and verified Open-Sourced Intelligence (OSINT) to fact-check Russian activities in Ukraine and debunk disinformation. He cited how his work alongside international partners like Bellingcat and media agencies like the BBC had provided further affirmation that Russian disinformation spread on the conflict is incorrect. Dr Šir elaborated on how journalists and media agencies should be aware of framing and terminological substitution (i.e., adopting the usage of Russian vocabulary and discursive construction), which could inadvertently lead to Russian disinformation and used to legitimatise goals. Dr Erlich presented his study on Ukrainians’ attitudes towards pro-Kremlin disinformation. He noted that despite the recent invasion by Russia, the Ukrainian national identity had gotten stronger and more cohesive in recent years; and that the strong resilience against Russian disinformation was likely related to the building of strong institutions which encouraged critical thinking among Ukrainians. Lastly, Dr Pamment elaborated on the communication strategies deployed by policymakers during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This included the sharing of declassified intelligence with the media and public to build awareness of Russian military maneuverers prior to the invasion, and other countermeasures targeting Russian disinformation in European countries.
The final webinar addressed the topic of regulation from a legislative, social media and public perspective, its impact on how social media platforms are operated, and the changing approaches in tackling disinformation and misinformation. The speakers were Mr Daniel Braun, the Deputy Head of Cabinet of Ms Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency; Mr Aribowo Sasmito, Co-Founder and Head of MAFINDO; and Dr Jack Snyder, a Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University.
Dr Braun spoke on the European approach to social media regulation, citing the EU’s Digital Markets Act which serves as a gatekeeper to transparency obligations on advertising and algorithms by service providers, as well as the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation which aims to strengthen the regulation of political advertising and the implementation of a regulatory monitoring framework. Mr Sasmito spoke on the current disinformation system in Asia and elaborated on the increasingly blurred lines between media sources, producers, and distributors. He highlighted the importance of strengthening critical thinking skills in the public and adopting a more proactive role in participating in fact-checking activities. Lastly, Dr Snyder spoke on the importance of empowering journalists and the press and strengthening the institutions that facilitate free speech.