Government agencies and political parties are most active in spreading disinformation to Malaysians, according to a study by Asia Centre.
The study reviews the last 5 general election polls and found consistent disinformation campaigns usually built around falsehoods related to a candidate’s sexual orientation and promiscuity, corruption, electoral integrity, attacks against women politicians and foreign interference.
In a statement, Asia Centre’s regional director James Gomez warned that the disinformation campaign will intensify when the 15th general election (GE15) approaches.
“Following the 2019 ‘Undi18’ constitutional amendment, youths have become prime targets of political parties in the upcoming elections in Malaysia. As a result, they will also become targets of disinformation campaigns as political messaging is expected to intensify in the run-up to and during the elections,” he said.
“During GE15, we can expect that these same types of disinformation will be deployed and recommend all Malaysians to be careful about information related to these specific topics.”
Meanwhile, Asia Centre’s report suggested that sexual orientation and promiscuity are among the top preference for the disinformation targeted at political rivals, especially as an attempt to discredit the Opposition.
Asia Centre pointed out that such accusations with sexual undertone often resurface again and again in the election cycle as Malaysian politicians are mainly evaluated by the electorate for their “virtuous conduct”.
“Apart from casting doubt in the voters’ minds, accusations of sexual misconduct lead to drawn-out legal cases, with some facing the prospect of imprisonment.” it said.
Asia Centre then cited the case of Anwar Ibrahim, who has borne the brunt of a sustained campaign since 1998 to discredit him using allegations of homosexuality. Anwar has been convicted and jailed twice for sodomy, but he has maintained to this day that the charges were a false accusation.
Asia Centre said disinformation against Anwar continued from 1999 up until the Port Dickson by-election on 13 October 2018, which the PKR president eventually won.
Misinformation by both Government and Opposition
According to the study, it was found that both the government and the Opposition were responsible for spreading such accusations.
One example from the Opposition was during the 2008 general election, SMS texts about the then deputy chief of Umno Youth and candidate for the Rembau seat in Negri Sembilan, Khairy Jamaluddin’s purported “sex video” went circulating. The clip was later revealed to be bogus.
Another example would be the corruption allegations, which Asia Centre’s study described as rampant and perpetuated by both ruling and Opposition parties.
“Political disinformation on corruption has been primarily used to discredit the government or attack political rivals during the past elections. However, these allegations were used in different ways during the 2018 election to silence critics and manipulate online narratives,” it noted.
The study also found that government agencies, political parties or campaign managers are the set of actors at the top of the disinformation chain as they directed the creation and spread of fake news.
“These actors commission disinformation to dispel criticism, discredit political opponents, and manipulate information flow and public opinion. Often, they keep some distance from the implementers of the commissioned disinformation in order to have room for plausible deniability,” the report said.
The research was held between 15 May and 31 August this year and it was done through a desk research of primary and secondary documents and interviews with selected respondents.