Jakarta — For millions of people across south-east Asia, their smart phone and Facebook are their only interaction with the people who govern them and shape their society. And that is unlikely to change any time soon, according to Australian National University lecturer Ross Tapsell, even as the social media giant’s reputation and share price take a battering over the alleged improper use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica.
While Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has admitted his company’s mistakes, and as authorities in Australia, the United States and elsewhere investigate, Dr Tapsell says countries in south-east Asia are yet to have a debate about social media and privacy.
His recent book, Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution, notes there were 64 million Indonesians with a Facebook account in 2015. Twenty million have a Twitter account. The penetration of both platforms in a region where smart phones are cheap and accessible is among the highest in the world.
“For a lot of people, Facebook is the internet in south-east Asia,” Dr Tapsell says, adding that political parties in Indonesia and throughout the region are using Facebook to mobilise voters and organise rallies. “There are big data companies in south-east Asia who are scraping people’s details, mobile phone numbers and so forth, and who then use that information to try swing votes. Data is easily accessible … a lot of it can be bought.
“The Cambridge Analytica case has highlighted where we think the line should be drawn on privacy and social media. South-east Asia is yet to have that debate, maybe this will spark it. There are certainly other companies that are looking to do similar things, if not identical things, to what Cambridge Analytica has done.”
On its website, Cambridge Analytica boasts of having worked in Thailand to determine Thai voter behaviour, though it offers few specifics, and obliquely refers to managing an election campaign for one of Indonesia’s major political parties at some point after 1999. More significantly, it claims to have run a “targeted messaging campaign” in Malaysia’s Kedah State for Barisan Nasional, the party of Prime Minister Najib Razak, that helped the party win the state in the 2013 election.
A picture of Mr Razak is featured on the company’s website. The suggestion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement – against the backdrop of a national election expected as soon as April – has dominated headlines in Malaysia in recent days. But the office of Mr Razak has denied that either Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL Group “have ever – now or in the past – been contracted, employed or paid in any way by Barisan Nasional, the Prime Minister’s Office or any part of the Government of Malaysia”.
Instead they accuse Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former prime minister turned opposition leader Mahatir Mohammad – who was then with Barisan Nasional but is now in opposition – of working with the firm in 2013. In Cambodia, where strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has arrested leading opposition politicians, cracked down on civil society groups and ramped up pressure on traditional media outlets, Facebook has become a primary sources of news for many people.
For example, news of the recent death of two men, one of whom was an Australian, after a landmine exploded, was posted to Facebook within hours by Vannak Pheng, a major in the Cambodian military. Pheng has 194,092 followers on his personal page and uploaded chilling pictures of the men injured in the incident, as well as a picture of one of the dead bodies covered by a sheet. The post serves as another example of Facebook as a source of news.
Mu Sochua, the exiled deputy leader of the Cambodian opposition, says 70 per cent of Cambodia’s voters are under the age of 30, and virtually all of them are on Facebook. Before Hun Sen’s 2017 crackdown, the opposition relied on the platform to organise protests. “In every country I go to, we talk only about Facebook. Every Cambodian is connected to news at home by Facebook. It could come to the point where Hun Sen tries to shut it down as he is already targeting social media, people who used to be active, now, they don’t comment.