Fake news threatens to disrupt the social harmony and peaceful foundation of ASEAN if not tackled swiftly, said a senior Brunei official on Thursday.

Speaking at an ASEAN-level conference in Singapore, YB Dato Hj Awang Abdul Mokti, a minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, said fake news had become an “epidemic”.

“In recent years, human creativity has been exploited to distort truth and create false stories with the aim to deliberately misinform the public for financial and political gain.”

“The biggest challenge is guaranteeing the credibility and reliability of the sources of information,” he said at the Conference of the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information.

The minister added that there is also need for better legal framework regarding privacy of user data in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Mishandling of users’ private data leaves it vulnerable to becoming tools of political propaganda, business profiteering and cyber crime, he said.

At the ASEAN summit last month, His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam said the abuse of personal data and the use of technology to disrupt security presented new challenges that ASEAN must confront.

Brunei plans to set up an online verification portal to contain the spread of fake news on social media, it was revealed during the Legislative Council session in March. 

“In Brunei, the public is frequently reminded to be more responsible when using social media… ASEAN can leverage on the established communications link to combat the misuse and abuse of data,” YB Dato Hj Awang Abdul Mokti said.

Southeast Asian ministers at the conference endorsed a joint declaration to “minimise the harmful effects of fake news”, which covers strategies such as improving media literacy; monitoring and fact-checking information; and guidelines to protect consumers.