Beyond ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’: The Urgent Need to Protect Communities in Asia’s Digital Era
Author: Mitra Modaressi, Project Manager, Preventing Violent Extremism Team, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub
Digital harm is no longer a pandemic for Silicon Valley or for American and European societies…it has now arrived in the homes and communities of Asia, and forcefully.
What do a peacebuilder, an influencer with 23M followers and a parliamentarian have in common? They all use digital tools to engage their constituents. While they use different platforms to increase their reach, they also spend a lot of time promoting their version of the truth; developing counter-messaging to what they disagree with; facing, responding to, or escaping from attacks leveled at them. They also never stop playing catch up with the latest trends that are parachuted from Silicon Valley or other similar digital tech hubs.
South and Southeast Asia, collectively, represent the highest number of social media users worldwide and account for 70% of internet penetration. The widespread accessibility to the internet, particularly through smartphones has had a significant impact on the social wellbeing of communities. The reliance on various types of apps does boost the economy, but it also, exponentially influences how people communicate and build connections.
These apps are user-friendly and, in most cases, accessible. They have replaced expensive calling cards and have allowed people to stay connected to the outside world through videos and emojis.
But these digital spaces have also evolved into hubs for emerging types of violence. Cyber misogyny, hateful messages targeting religious and ethnic minorities, and dissemination of rumors as facts have exploited vulnerabilities in the region.
In many cases, they have threatened some of the most effective community efforts in building peace and maintaining social cohesion.
This is now a significant issue in South and Southeast Asia, a region prone to fragility and crisis. So, what can be done when the most commonly used communication tools become impediments to people’s safety as well as their efforts to prevent crises and build peace?
Stop Playing Catch up and get ahead of the game
Only a fraction of research conducted by tech companies on understanding human behavior goes into educating users about the consequences of their latest system upgrades or the terms and conditions that people agree to.
The physical distance to Silicon Valley and lobby groups in Brussels and Washington DC does not help level the power imbalance that is experienced in this part of the world either. To address this, there needs to be heavy investment in creating awareness about the social risks and potential harm associated with the use of technologies.
This can be done by building coalitions at the local level, to bring together policymakers, tech companies, and national regulatory bodies, to directly hear from users about their experiences and to hold those in power accountable for their products.
Promote Empathy and a Culture of Fact-checking
There are users that inflict harm, there are users who promote good and there are those who just scroll through, seemingly desensitized to both positive and negative content. With the blurring lines between online and offline activities, users need to be made aware of the consequences of distributing content without fact-checking before they click ‘share’. Supporting emotional and mental stability programs and teaching critical thinking skills can prevent people from falling prey to sensational headlines that manipulate fears and anxieties. These are preventative measures that can promote a culture of peace and empathy in digital spaces.
Data and mapping
Investment is required to map out and understand the diversity of actors that encourage digital harm in various digital spaces. Depending on their motives and techniques, alternative narratives can be created to support communities to shift away from entertaining and amplifying harmful messages. By leveraging Behavioural Insights and employing innovative data collection tools we can effectively adapt and implement the right techniques to safeguard online users from the diverse array of harm perpetrated through algorithms, bots, and cyber armies.
Some of the consequences include further polarization, lack of trust in institutions, mental health issues, and incitement of hate. Failure to address these consequences will not only exacerbate the fragility of the region but also hinder progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.