Although ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’ have become international buzzwords since the US Presidential Elections 2016, several Southeast Asian nations have long confronted a tight control of their (inter)national media, draconian censorship regulations, and sedition/defamation acts.
The rhetoric of ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’, and their older counterparts ‘propaganda’ and ‘media manipulation’, are regularly enacted by incumbent governments to control political opposition and grassroots dissent. As such, even acts of active citizenship and social activism on social media have been curbed and penalised. Stigmatised groups in many of such nations are also fearful about exposing their views on open platforms, thus constraining the extent to which these groups can effectively use the Internet for civic and social participation.
However, a saving grace in these nations are the private-grouped, platform-encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp that accord users an extent of privacy and freedom from state surveillance. Further, information shared in the form of internet popular culture – such as memes, folklore, chain mail, and viral artefacts, in the form of text, images, gifs, and videos – allows for a layer of plausible deniability wherein users can disperse and dispel organised efforts as mere humour, in an act of subversive frivolity.
Using traditional and digital ethnographic observation, personal interviews, questionnaires, and content analyses, this project focuses on Singapore and Malaysia to understand how internet popular culture is being weaponised on WhatsApp by the state, political parties, grassroots groups, and corporations.