By Andrew Lowenthal
I awoke heavily from a mid-afternoon nap to find my phone blowing up. I had taken a 6am flight from Manila to Bangkok that March morning on very little sleep. My attention span was fading rapidly as I read up on the new flight ban from Europe to the US. A quick snooze seemed in order.
A great deal can happen in two hours.
Whispers of a Manila lockdown and Philippine border closures began circulating earlier that day and were confirmed by mid-afternoon. Three non-Filipino EngageMedia staff were in the country and, given President Duterte’s unplanned decree, needed to get on flights sooner than later. As I awoke those flights were being booked, and staff members were packing up the office before heading home where they had been instructed to stay locked down until now, some 11 weeks on.
In Indonesia, three team members had arrived the previous night in Bandung, a major city in West Java, and were partway through a two-day workshop on the strategic use of technology and communications for a variety of marginalised groups. Do we stop the training? The panic fog was catching. In the end, we finished the workshop and everyone headed directly home, without sticking around for any post-event niceties.
Internally, we quickly adjusted our work and direction, and ensured we were set up for remote working. We are fortunate in that almost all our work was still relevant — disinformation, the online security of civil society, the need for more coordinated digital rights networks, and online video as a critical communications tool, among many others.
We were also fortunate that almost all our work could be done remotely, our default mode for the past 15 years. In fact, our productivity may have increased as a result of halting the merry-go-round of workshops, conferences, and meetings. It’s been a chance to clear the backlog, reset, and refocus.
Recast Communities and Emerging Theatres
EngageMedia is a media, culture, and technology non-profit that works across the Asia-Pacific, and particularly in Southeast Asia. As a result of the global COVID-19 crisis, the region is in the biggest flux since the post WWII anti-colonial movements.
Many cities and countries are in lockdown. Urban geography and cultural norms make social distancing extremely difficult for most, and many governments lack the resources, will, or expertise to effectively manage the health crisis. Coupled with the massive economic contraction, a range of social crises loom on the horizon. Varying levels of government competence, testing, and political opportunism have impacted the handling of the crisis. Some, such as Malaysia, have been strict. Others, like Indonesia, seem to have thrown their hands in the air.
Government responses threaten to derail open societies and have left many civil society organisations vulnerable, including the digital rights actors, journalists, film-makers, human rights activists, researchers, technologists, and creatives we work with. Before COVID-19, Southeast Asia was already in a process of democratic regression — in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and others. The pandemic is further speeding up this regression. Beyond this extension of authoritarian power, there is also growing surveillance, rising disinformation, curtailment of freedom of expression and assembly, and increases in human rights abuses. Inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and inter-class conflict also loom.
In the Philippines, President Duterte has given police the green light to shoot suspected quarantine violators dead — his police force has come good on his threat. In Thailand, its state of emergency decree did not disclose how much personal data the government could collect from suspected carriers using airport apps and chatbots. In Myanmar, the ongoing internet shutdown in some townships in Rakhine and Chin states has led to a lack of access to information on COVID-19.
On top of these threats, not all civil society organisations are adept at remote work, and those that are often struggle to do so securely. In Indonesia, a researcher critical of the government’s response to the pandemic was arrested after his Whatsapp was hacked.
Geo-politically the tectonic plates are shifting rapidly. Southeast Asia’s position as a theatre of conflict between China and the US is accelerating. The pandemic is weakening the United States’ power in the region, and increasing China’s influence. China is actively assisting countries with their COVID-19 responses, while the US is nowhere to be seen. In the South China Sea, Chinese naval activity is growing.
Technology is an important part of this theatre of conflict. Countries in the region are compelled to choose their ‘provider’. In choosing Chinese or American artificial intelligence, for example, they also choose sides, and which strategic compromises to make. Soft power will influence their choice.
Responses and Questions
EngageMedia’s responses have been many and varied, from documenting the plight of informal workers and video journalists on the front-lines in Manila, to providing tips for effective remote work or online screenings, to building a database of COVID-19 resources for civil society, and documenting emerging privacy threats in Thailand and Indonesia.
Most importantly, we are exploring the new methods to support the communities and networks we help convene and facilitate. Network and field building has been a key focus of our organisation since its inception. This has included establishing a global network of Video for Change practitioners, building networks of film-makers in West Papua, facilitating networks of women, people with disabilities, youth, and environmental activists in Indonesia, and, most prominently, convening Coconet, an Asia-Pacific digital rights network.
Coconet was developed through two camps in Indonesia and the Philippines. A larger Coconet festival is scheduled for 2021, though planning is on hold as we wait to see how the pandemic plays out. COVID-19 accelerated our existing plans to make the network more of a day-to-day experience. That presents both opportunities and limitations.
EngageMedia’s work has leaned heavily on two transportation technologies/economies — the internet and cheap flights. These techno-economic affordances redefined geographies and subjectivities and supported our mission of working regionally rather than nationally. We are interested in the regional framing and cross-border collaboration these technologies accelerated, including the opportunities to develop new identities, frameworks, approaches, and collaborations.
Physical events rapidly build connections and friendships, and are the primary approach for us. At our events, we take participants out of the city, where they share accommodation, eat together, and co-design and execute the agenda. This stretching of people beyond their comfort zones quickly forms strong bonds, in a way that is nearly impossible online.
Now, we are physically re-confined to national borders and can only transport ourselves online.
People often talk of a post-COVID world. However, there will be no such thing in my view for the next several years at least, in the same way that we are not in the post-tuberculosis or malaria world. Even in the unlikely event that a vaccine is created in 2020, it will take years for it to be rolled out globally.
In the immediate future, there will likely be heavy restrictions on travel to and from many countries, and various travel bubbles will emerge — green and red zones. The physical bridges that have been built between advocates in many countries have been pulled up and won’t return quickly. They will need to be re-created in other ways.
Global digital rights networks were already asymmetric, though much had been done in the past decade to bring in non-European and non-US actors. The pandemic throws us firmly back into that physical asymmetry — can we ramp up online networks sufficiently to mitigate or even transform that asymmetry? How might the on and offline event merge in the future?
New approaches could democratise and flatten access much more than previously — thousands of people can attend a webinar or online conference, compared to a few hundred people who get to attend face-to-face events.
What new communities will emerge? The localised transmission of COVID-19 has given rise to a renewed interest in local news. We might see a rise of more geographically specific communities, and a decrease or mutation of cosmopolitanism.
This ‘localisation’ will also have negative effects with a rise in parochialism, nationalism, and racism. How will the boundary busting nature of the internet confront the newly fortified physical borders of the state?
With face-to-face work off the cards we are exploring how best to make a contribution. For Coconet, we are busy setting up shared infrastructure — ranging from project and knowledge management systems and secure communications guides, to documenting and developing strategies and resources, translating and localising materials and tools, creating networked campaigns, and utilising tools to move capacity building and events online.
We are documenting and sharing our learning as we go, and are keen to sync and share with others as we navigate our way towards this dusky new world.
Andrew Lowenthal is the co-founder and Executive Director of EngageMedia, an Asia-Pacific non-profit exploring the intersection of media, technology, and social change. He is a former Berkman Klein fellow.