From Vietnam to Singapore and Indonesia to the Philippines, Southeast Asia is fast becoming one of the most tech-savvy and connected regions in the world, with thousands of products and services going online every day. But as online services on platforms become ubiquitous and more people live on the internet, something ominous has also taken over the digital space: intimidation of activists and protesters.
Digital repression by way of fake news labeling, as well as technological and psychological attacks on rights campaigners have intensified in recent years, according to reports from civil groups across the region. In Myanmar, where the military junta deployed surveillance drones and iPhone hacking tools, dozens have been killed and thousands arrested. In Cambodia, where the country’s president has ruled with an iron fist for 36 years, the opposition, civil society, and media are constantly under crackdown. While measures like tighter internet laws are clearly state-sponsored, other attack methods targeting students, academics, political activists, and journalists are harder to trace.
Here’s a closer look at some of the ways people have been targeted in the region.
This researcher criticized the government. Then he was framed for a crime.
On April 22, 2020, public policy researcher Ravio Patra was plucked off the street in Jakarta and placed into police custody. A frequent critic of the government, Ravio had confronted a member of the Indonesian president’s special staff the night before. He then found himself locked out of his WhatsApp account, and before he could figure out what was going on, someone was using his account to broadcast a message to incite riots and looting from his number.
By the time WhatsApp managed to recover Ravio’s account, it was too late. He spent 33 hours in detention for a message he never sent.
Ravio is not alone. The past two years have seen a growing number of activists across Southeast Asia reporting that their phones or social media accounts had been hacked after criticizing the government. The victims included news websites, citizens who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic, journalists reporting on racism in Papua, and even student activists: the University of Indonesia’s student organization suddenly lost access to their WhatsApp account after posting a meme critical of President Joko Widodo.
Speaking out online? Beware of trolls.
Trolling is a lucrative business across Southeast Asia, but it started with something more benign. When then Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo decided to run for president in 2014, it was one of the most high-profile examples of using social media in political campaigns in the region. With the help of an army of social media volunteers, Jokowi won the Indonesian election. Two years later, Rodrigo Duterte followed Widodo’s example and formed a powerful social media team en route to becoming the president of the Philippines.
Years later, many of the volunteers that helped put the two men into office have evolved into something else: aggressive online mobs who respond to critics with ridicule and provocation, either harassing targets into silence or derailing the conversation by distorting the facts. While trolling usually employs bots and anonymous accounts, in the Philippines and Indonesia, high profile political influencers are at times involved — motivated by both fees and ideological beliefs. In Vietnam, the government is reported to have hired 10,000-plus cyber troops to manipulate public discourse.
This outlet investigated a rape case. Within hours, their site crashed.
Overwhelming a website with traffic requests until it shuts down – the classic distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS – is a quick way to remove unfavorable content online. Granted, it’s less permanent than traditional censorship, but the effect is immediate.
In October 2021, independent public journalism site Project Multatuli published a nearly 3,000-word report on the failure of the Indonesian justice system to handle a case where three children were raped in Sulawesi. The report trended on Twitter, prompting others to join in and share their own negative experiences with the Indonesian police. Hours later, Project Multatuli’s website crashed from massive DDoS attacks.
“It was a series of attacks that occurred over two days,” Evi Mariani, co-founder of Project Multatuli, told Rest of World. It took her team about a week to install extra protection software. They also migrated to more exclusive servers and hired a permanent IT security officer. Indonesian authorities, she said, have been silent about the incident.
Students protested the government. Then their private info appeared on Google Maps.
In June 2021, the names, addresses, and photos of nearly 500 people in Thailand were published on Google Maps in an attempt to expose those accused of opposing the Thai monarchy. Around 80 royalists allegedly volunteered to carry out the doxxing.
While a DDoS attack targets hardware, doxxing is far more personal because it targets a person’s private life. The practice of revealing someone’s identity or whereabouts is a common tactic to intimidate, either by divulging secrets and damaging credibility or allowing an online mob to directly harass people through their private contact information.
Another incident occurred in September 2020, when a journalist working as a fact-checker in Indonesia was doxxed after debunking a hoax surrounding a politician. In this case, it wasn’t just his own photos, address, and phone number that was revealed: his family members were targeted too.
An artist posted a sarcastic Facebook post. She was arrested for spreading “fake news.”
Under the pretext of fighting misinformation, it’s never been easier for governments across Southeast Asia to label criticism as “fake news” and censor unfavorable coverage through repressive internet laws.
Take Filipino artist and scriptwriter Maria Victoria Beltran. She wrote a satirical post on Facebook about Covid-19: “9,000+ new cases… We are now the epicenter in the whole Solar System.” The post angered the city’s mayor, and despite being taken down, she was arrested three days later.
There’s also the Papuan pro-independence leader Manuel Metemko, who was arrested by Indonesian authorities for “spreading hoaxes, provocative stories, and hatred online,” hundreds of websites in Myanmar that were blocked for “fake news,” and the dozens of Vietnamese who were arrested for allegedly posting Covid-19-related misinformation on Facebook in the last year alone. And when they don’t target users, governments in Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand have ordered Facebook to take down content.
“They can’t block social media platforms altogether because their importance goes beyond political issues, as people also use them for business and trading,” said Sutawan Chanprasert, founder of Digital Reach Asia. “And if they shut down the platforms altogether, that will cause a lot more damage.”