Understanding the Impact of Information Disorder on Democracy and Authoritarianism

Participants at Democracy Camp in the Kyrgyz Republic (IFES, June 2017)

By Pin Thanesnant, AEO Director of Operations

Democracy has been declining across Asia and the Pacific for more than ten years. Information disorder—a term in which distorted and manipulated information is ubiquitous—is believed to be playing a role in destabilizing democracy across the region.

The USAID/Asia Bureau’s Technical Services wanted to understand how distorted information is used to gain and maintain unchecked and unaccountable power in Asia and the Pacific. They asked Integra (under the Asia Emerging Opportunities mechanism) to analyze how information disorder may be affirming authoritarianism in Asia and the Pacific.

Integra approached this question through a series of in-depth country case studies identifying supply- and demand-side factors contributing to information disorder at the national and sub-national levels. The case study countries included the Kyrgyz Republic, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand. These countries represent regime types ranging from relatively democratic political systems to de facto military dictatorships.

Five regional experts conducted desk-based research, consulting open-source documents (academic books and peer-reviewed journal articles), think tank reports, publicly available government documents, and broadcast, print, and social media publications. In addition, the experts accessed and explored grey literature, unofficial documents, and other materials not readily available—due to their local networks and language skills. Where there was not enough information for a case study; our experts conducted key informant interviews with people identified through their “on the ground” networks.

Integra found that there has been a long history of information manipulation for political ends in Asia and the Pacific for centuries, focused almost exclusively on influencing operations by states in other states.  Integra also found that the most sophisticated disinformation campaigns identify cleavages and rifts unique to a society. They can insert themselves into a political arena and are constructed around local fears and anxieties. In addition, all case studies revealed a need for mitigation strategies tailored to the local contexts to contain and counter-information disorder. This localization may effectively respond to the challenge put forward by the USAID Administrator Samantha Power to find ways to work with small partner organizations in each country. The case studies found that the most effective mitigation strategies should pursue holistic approaches that consider the many interconnected dimensions of information disorder. Mitigation strategies also need to focus on political and economic conditions rather than just the technical aspects of information disorder. These findings will help USAID understand the causes and consequences of information disorder in Asia and the Pacific, identify strategies to effectively address the issues in the region, and adapt and replicate these solutions worldwide.

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