It has now been nearly ten months since COVID-19 was classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, and our lives have changed significantly since then, especially in the way that we communicate. Our virtual interactions with each other are now more important than ever. We have all been introduced to various virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, and rely more on social media messaging apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and WeChat. However, while social media and messaging services keep us all interconnected, it’s time we have a candid conversation about the impact they hold, both positive and negative, on the AAPI community.
Recently, Asia has seen tremendous growth in mobile subscriptions and Internet and social media usage, which will only continue over the next few years. As of 2019, Asia has 2.8 billion mobile subscribers and 2 billion mobile internet users, and these numbers are expected to increase to 3 billion and 2.7 billion by 2025.
There are two main factors that have contributed to this trend: the increasing affordability of mobile phones and phone providers, and the global spread of Internet access and social media messaging services. One prominent example of this is the growth of mobile phone subscriptions within India due to Indian telecom operators like Reliance Jio. Jio was launched in late 2016 and offered affordable 4G data access nationwide, along with promotional free voice and data calls. Their subsequent Jiophone, which retails for $20,gained 50 million new subscribers within 83 days of launching, eventually making Jio the largest mobile network operator in India by 2020 with nearly 400 million subscribers.
Affordability in mobile services hasn’t been the only thing that has propelled mobile growth in Asia. Social media apps have too, particularly WeChat, Facebook, and WhatsApp. WeChat, a popular multipurpose Chinese app that offers messaging, food delivery, online payment, and even electronic ID, has become ingrained in the Chinese society including Chinese immigrants abroad, and it’s all-encompassing functionalities have grown the active user base to over 1.3 billion users.
WhatsApp has also had a similar growth within Asia, specifically in South Asia and the Middle East. As a messaging app offering free text, voice call, and video call, WhatsApp has grown to over 400 million active users in India, and much like WeChat, is planning to launch new features like online payment in the near future. Lastly, the other main app within Asia is Facebook and Facebook Messenger, which has gained dominance around Southeast Asia, connecting over 241 million people on the platform, 94 percent of which access Facebook from mobile devices. Additionally, through Facebook, small businesses within Southeast Asia have been able to reach a growing mobile base that includes international consumers. Other popular apps include LINE, headquartered in Japan, and KakaoTalk, a popular Korean app.
However, while there are clear benefits to an ever-increasing base of mobile users in Asia, there are multiple challenges that come with increased users on social media networks and the threat of spreading misinformation. On WhatsApp, one of the most defining features is a forward button, which allows users to send posts and videos to their contacts. While this can be used to send harmless “Good Morning” messages, funny videos, family pictures, and recipes, the forward button can also be used to spread dangerous, and even deadly, misinformation. In 2018, 18 innocent people were killed across India in mob lynchings linked to the spread of false information about child abductions.
And even on WeChat, where the Chinese government can censor information, misinformation still spread about COVID-19 in early 2020 among WeChat users in China and Asian immigrants in the United States. Facebook has arguably had one of the most dangerous experiences with the spread of misinformation. In Myanmar, the anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment that led to an ethnic cleansing was mainly due to the spread of misinformation and fake news on Facebook. This was only compounded by the lack of fluent Burmese fact checkers at Facebook that could take down posts on the site.
However, despite the possibility of rampant misinformation and fake news on social media apps, there are steps to mitigate the spread. Tech companies, for one, are starting to take a stand. WhatsApp has limited the amount of forwarding a user can do with posts. Additionally, at the start of August of 2020, WhatsApp released a beta feature on Android that allows users to click a search button next to a post and search the web for information regarding the content of the post.
Individually, we can all take measures to make sure that we are responsible consumers of information. We can make sure that we get our information from credible news sources. We can take the time to fact check information that we see posted on social media that doesn’t have sourcing, and we can report blatantly false or suspicious posts. Social media can be a double-edged sword. However, by taking the time to be responsible consumers of information, we can do our part in reducing the viral spread of misinformation and fake news.