It’s not just nation-states that interfere in elections and manipulate political discourse. A range of commercial services increasingly engage in such activities, operating in a shadow online influence-for-hire economy that spans from content farms through to high-end PR agencies.
The Asia–Pacific region contains many states in different stages of democratisation. Many have transitioned to democratic forms of governance from authoritarian regimes. Some have weak political institutions, limitations on independent media and fragile civil societies. The rapid rate of digital penetration in the region layered over that political context leaves populations vulnerable to online manipulation. In fragile democratic contexts, the prevalence of influence-for-hire operations and their leverage by agents of the state is particularly problematic, given the power imbalance between citizens and the state.
A surplus of cheap digital labour makes the Asia–Pacific a focus for operators in this economy, and this report examines the regional influence-for-hire marketplace using case studies of online manipulation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Australia. Governments and other entities in the region contract such services to target and influence their own populations in ways that aren’t transparent and that may inhibit freedom of political expression by drowning out dissenting voices. Several governments have introduced anti-fake-news legislation that has the potential to inhibit civic discourse by limiting popular political dissent or constraining the independence of the media from the state. These trends risk damaging the quality of civic engagement in the region’s emerging democracies.