The tools of democracy may combat tyranny, but they do not always combat corruption. That’s not to suggest that democratic values run counter to anticorruption efforts. Indeed, a free press and a competitive multi-party system remain powerful tools in ensuring corruption does not take root. However, once corruption has snaked its way throughout a government, democratic values and institutions may be too easily manipulated to fight corruption effectively. Perhaps no world leader illustrates this seeming paradox better than Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister twice. His long first tenure, from 1981 to 2003, earned him notoriety as a near-dictator whose autocratic regime contributed to a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and cronyism. During his short-lived second tenure from 2018 to 2020, Mahathir was heralded as a champion of democracy—but the liberal democratic pillars that he had suppressed during his first tenure, most notably genuine political competition and a free press, contributed to the failure of his anticorruption efforts and ultimately to the fall of his government. The bitter irony is that the suppression of both political competition and press freedom helped to create Malaysia’s entrenched corruption during Mahathir’s first tenure, while the flourishing of political competition and the free press contributed to the failure of Malaysia’s attempts to root out this entrenched corruption during his second tenure.
Since at least 2016, complaints about “fake news” have become increasingly common all over the world. But “fake news” refers to two separate phenomena. In some cases, “fake news” means stories that are actually untrue (not just distorted, but fabricated, and deliberately disguised to make it appear that they come from a legitimate media outlet rather than a propagandist or troll). Shanil posted about the dangers that this sort of fake news poses to anticorruption efforts last December. But politicians, notably President Trump, have appropriated the “fake news” label and applied it to any coverage that they deem unfavorable or unfair, even when the news comes from a legitimate media outlet and there is no credible argument that the story is a deliberate fabrication.
The conflation of these two kinds of “fake news” is dangerous, not least because concerns about the former may provide politicians with a pretext for suppressing the latter. Case in point: in April, Malaysia enacted a new law—the Anti-Fake News Bill—that purports to criminalize fake news. The purpose of the new law, which gives the government has the power to prosecute those who create or spread “fake news” with jail terms of up to six years and fines up to about $123,000, seems to be giving the government more authority and discretion to stamp out unflattering news. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and the Philippines are considering similar measures.
While the anticorruption community should fight against corrupt actors using fake news to spread false stories, it should also resist efforts of governments to misuse the “fake news” label as a pretext for more extensive regulation of legitimate media and free speech. Censorship laws like Malaysia’s reduce transparency and scrutiny, and ultimately hurt anticorruption efforts by entrenching corrupt, illiberal governments.
The reputation of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (ANTAC), a Ukrainian anticorruption NGO, was called into question in May 2017, when a video featuring a report from the American “News24” network appeared on YouTube; the video reported on investigations into the finances of Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the ANTAC board. A few months later, in September 2017, Ukraine’s NewsOne featured a live broadcast of a sitting of the US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues in relation to alleged corruption in the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU). The hearing focused largely on the conduct of Valeriya Hontareva, who had championed reforms of the banking sector to prevent misuse of the system by business tycoons. The panelists suggested that Ms. Hontareva was herself corrupt and being investigated by the US Congress.
Reports that leading figures fighting for more integrity in Ukraine might themselves be corrupt are, of course, disturbing. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that both of these stories were completely fabricated. News24 does not exist. The news anchor who appeared in the purported News24 video was an American actor named Michael-John Wolfe, hired through the site Fiverr.com. As for the broadcast of the hearing before the “US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues”—there is no such committee. The so-called “hearing” was in fact a private event organized by lobbyists (including former congressman Connie Mack), held in a room in the basement of the US Capitol without the attendance of any current members of Congress. (Representative Ron Estes (R-KS) sponsored the room’s booking, apparently in violation House ethics guidelines.)
Although attempts to tarnish the reputations of activists and reformers are not new, the two incidents described above reveal that anti-anti-corruption forces are beginning to deploy the “fake news” tactics that garnered so much attention in recent elections, especially though not exclusively in the United States. And while in these incidents fake news was used as an offensive strategy, fake news has also been deployed defensively, for example by the wealthy and influential Gupta family in South Africa, to shake off allegations of corruption.
Although these efforts in Ukraine seem clumsy and easily exposed, it is likely that fake news will be an increasingly difficult challenge for anticorruption efforts in the years to come. The fake news phenomenon threatens to undermine anticorruption efforts in a variety of ways: Continue reading