How Internet Access Impacts Disinformation?

Dr. Ross Tapsell
Senior lecturer of Department of Gender, Media and Culture Director, ANU Malaysia Institute College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University

In this article I wish to question the dominant narrative that disinformation can be easily overcome through ‘official’ sources of truth

Southeast Asia is a good region to examine the multi-layered nature of internet access. When we think of the ‘digital divide’, we usually think of those who have internet access, and those who do not. In Southeast Asia there are millions of citizens living ‘on’ the digital divide ‘bridge’. Those who have some internet access via a cheap (Chinese-made) Android phone and who predominantly use the ‘internet’ to connect with friends and family, via Facebook and WhatsApp (owned by Facebook). YouTube matters too, but in many areas streaming video content can be slow.

Many sign up to data plans on the basis that unlimited access to Facebook or WhatsApp are free. Leaving these main sites access another site costs data, which ultimately encourages the user to stay away from other sites. If the user lives in an area with low bandwidth, then many internet pages might not even load, or take considerable time to load that it become not worth the time to wait. Thus, citizens are unlikely to leave these sites on a regular basis, and ultimately do not access a wide variety of sites and pages that the internet has to offer.

This means many citizens are unlikely to bother to ‘fact-check’ information that comes their way via messenger platforms. Similarly, ‘official’ websites which ‘de-bunk’ disinformation is not a high priority for many citizens. In other words, the type of access citizens have to the internet can determine greatly how they experience disinformation, and how they overcome it.

Disinformation producers know that this is the case. They often target citizens with ‘viral’ content which can be easily spread around on WhatsApp and Facebook (often in the form of provocative text or images) in order to make sure the content reaches users who have slow internet speeds. Political commentary, or a single ‘eye-catching’ political image designed to incite or enrage, or even make you laugh, is the most common form of material that disinformation producers try to create, ideally to make sure the content is spread around ‘organically’ by users into their various closed messenger groups.

Thus, the key to understanding disinformation is improving internet access to all citizens in all areas. In the meantime, we need to better understanding the way in which citizens access information and their daily ‘media rituals’. We cannot expect that users will, out of their own initiative, regularly check ‘official’ sites and fact-checking organisations online. Countering low-bandwidth disinformation requires content from fact-checkers and reliable sources that are easily read, watched and distributed into low-bandwidth internet ‘communities’, including understanding the media environment for those who are, at least temporarily, ‘on’ the digital divide ‘bridge’.