The term “fake news” became widespread after the 2016 US elections but it resonates widely in Asia. In several instances, social media rumours and hoaxes have contributed to the spread of ethnic tensions, violence and political confrontation. Some regional governments have started enacting “fake news laws” to tackle the problem but critics worry such legislation will be used to stifle freedom of speech. What is fake news and how does it affect Asia? According to PolitiFact, fake news is “made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences”. Although disinformation has always existed, a range of new tools such as social media and messaging apps have made it easier to spread falsehoods. The phenomenon has had severe consequences across the globe, from shifting voters’ stances to causing violence among ethnic groups. Asia, where social media has already become the main source of news, is vulnerable to the spread of fake news as several episodes have proven. Sri Lanka blocks Facebook, Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp as anti-Muslim riots flare up In Myanmar , the military has been accused of creating fake accounts on Facebook to spread false news about Muslims in the country, inciting violence against the Rohingya minority . A report commissioned by Facebook concluded that the platform “has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm, and posts have been linked to offline violence”. Similarly, in Sri Lanka the spread of fake news led to communal violence between the Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslim minority. In a jarring episode, a mob destroyed a local restaurant and set a mosque on fire after rumours spread that the owner of the venue has laced meals with “sterilisation pills”. India’s lynching app: who is using WhatsApp as a murder weapon? In India, lynch mobs sprung up in response to fake news spread on WhatsApp , accusing innocent people of kidnappings. In July 2018, five men were beaten to death in the western state of Maharashtra after a video about the slaughter of children to harvest their organs was circulated on WhatsApp . The video used pictures from a nerve gas attack in Syria and claimed they were local children who had been kidnapped and killed. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte regularly condemns as “fake news” media outlets critical of his administration, in what many see as an effort to discredit critical media outlets from the Philippines. But Duterte and some of its cabinet members, including his former communications assistant secretary, Mocha Uson, have also been accused of spreading misinformation online. How are countries confronting fake news? Countries in Southeast Asia are trying to fight fake news through new regulation and campaigns to improve media literacy among their citizens. In Singapore, a parliamentary committee asked in 2018 to consider legislation aiming both to those responsible of fake news and technology companies giving a platform to those voices. The law would also carry criminal penalties for perpetrators. In Indonesia, the government of Joko Widodo holds weekly briefings on “hoax news” and has conducted several detentions against misinformation after extremist Muslim groups sought to inflame ethnic tensions and targeted people accused of criticising Islam. Are all these efforts welcome? Advocacy groups have long warned of the possible negative impact on freedom of speech that legislating against fake news might have. In Malaysia , for example, the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, passed a law one month before general elections . The law was repealed on August 2018 by the new government, led by Mohamad Mahathir . Before returning to power, Mahathir himself was being investigated under the “fake news law” after he claimed his plane was sabotaged before the elections. How WhatsApp is trying to solve its fake news problem in India In the Philippines , the Senate discussed in 2018 a bill that would criminalise the spread of fake news and target government officials promoting inaccurate information. The proposal was dismissed. Cambodia also passed its own “fake news” law. Anyone posting misinformation on social media or websites can be punished with up to two years in jail and fines of US$1,000. The bill, approved amid a government campaign to stifle dissent, was criticised in a statement signed by more than 100 local NGOs as “a serious threat” to freedom of expression. Are big technology firms acting to tackle the problem? After a barrage of criticism, tech companies like Google , Facebook and Twitter have announced measures to fight fake news. These firms have started to suspend accounts, reject payments to promote content from users spreading hoaxes, warn users of dubious content and partner with researchers and fact-checkers to detect false information. Facebook, WhatsApp target fake news for Asia’s election season, but is it too little, too late? Facebook decided to start its campaign to delete fake news in Sri Lanka, after rumours on the platform triggered intercommunal violence. The company said it was working with local civil society groups to detect false posts that could contribute to “imminent” violence. The company also blocked several accounts from Myanmar linked to the military, accused of spreading misinformation about the Rohingya minority. Facebook also set up teams to combat fake news ahead of elections in India , Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand .