Give the facts, the FULL facts

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

In the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods are a few interesting paragraphs about maintaining public trust in institutions. The end result is a  recommendation that public institutions “emphasise the timely communication of information to both pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods, and recognize the role of participation, transparency and accountability in ensuring public trust in how public institutions respond to online falsehoods’’.

But the discussion was a lot bigger than that.

Note that the committee’s recommendations relate to how to deal with falsehoods per se rather than than issues of accountability and transparency. But broader recommendations about governance were also made by representors. The committee said that these reiterated the importance of well-established principles such as communication, transparency, participation and accountability. It added that there were several suggestions urging the G to:

  • – Explain the rationale for public policy decisions;
  • – Be candid about failures and problems faced;
  • – Undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;
  • – Involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;
  • – Demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and
  • – Foster civil society and an active citizenry.

More specific proposals include enacting a Freedom of Information Act, to enable the public to get information from public institutions. Related recommendations were made to establish an ombudsman, to assess what classified data could be disclosed, to regularly de-classify archival material, and to investigate complaints against public institutions.

The basis of the recommendations: Strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. It also makes it easier for public institutions to effectively intervene in crises.

While the committee thinks the suggestions are valid and well-meaning, it said that representors didn’t go far enough to, for example, assess the extent to which the G now explains policies or consider how national security interests would crimp transparency. In other words, there was no evidence on the extent of gaps to be addressed. Nor was there a direct relation made between these issues and deliberate online falsehoods. In other words, they lacked “specificity’’.

It sent off the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which has oversight of citizen engagement efforts. The MCCY’s response is a seven-page statement listing all the efforts to engage the public, from Remaking Singapore and the Our Singapore Conversation to getting input on what to with the rail corridor and having Silver Ambassadors to explain policies to the elderly.

I suppose representators were too polite to make a direct link between lack of transparency and the uptake of falsehoods. I will say this: It is the perception that citizens are not being told everything that leads them to explore other avenues of information. It is the perception that information is being “spinned’’ to put policy makers in a good light. It is the perception that mainstream media, the G’s main channel of communication, isn’t giving all sides of the story, even if they do report accurately.

Panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said during one of the public hearings: “On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust. There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

Yes, we’re talking about perceptions here. It is a slow drip that has less to do with the prevalence of fake news and more to do with the frustration over not getting full answers.

I will give one example: The Prime Minister’s answer to a question from a parliamentarian on the amount of bonuses ministers received. The PM spoke only of performance bonuses and referred to the framework established on calculating ministerial salaries. Is it any wonder then that people would start asking about other salary components such as the National Bonus and take a stab at calculating how much each minister makes? This is how falsehoods are created, with The Online Citizen making the error of saying that the PM earned $4.5 million a year.

Nor is the G’s fact-checking site Factually any clearer in debunking the falsehood.

It said: The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister (that is, $1.1m). His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses. The Prime Minister does not receive a Performance Bonus as there is no one to assess his performance annually. He does receive the National Bonus.

So what is the National Bonus anyway? We’d have to do our own calculations based on the KPIs in the matrix developed for the bonus. And isn’t it the case that although he gets no performance bonus, the Prime Minister’s National Bonus can go up to 12 months while it’s capped at six months for the rest of the Cabinet if KPIs are exceeded ?

The mainstream media, meanwhile, faithfully reports the “debunking’’ without adding any value nor asking any questions.  In the meantime, TOC has put up another calculation of the PM’s salary…

Where there are gaps in information, others will step in to fill it. There is little point in indulging in self-righteous indignation over misinformation and rumours that arise because of a natural tendency for people to close the information loop. Also, because as the Select Committee itself pointed out: the falsehood has far greater traction (and retention) among people than the correction. Why create such opportunities for the curious, the mischief-makers and the malicious?

So the G has a big part to play in curbing the spread of disinformation beyond wielding the stick. Likewise, the mainstream media.

A 2017 Reuters institute report said that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from political influence. Academic Shashi Jayakumar who spoke on the need for public trust during the hearing, said that ways should be found to help newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao “again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources, bar none, in the eyes of the Singapore public”. Note the word “again’’.

It has always been my thesis that the G should leave MSM alone to do a professional job, so that we can all be exposed to quality journalism.

Another important point to note that the media landscape has changed substantially.

Professor Thio Li-ann, whose views were quoted liberally by the committee, for example, describes MSM as “a public forum, exposing people to a wide range of speakers, unanticipated topics and viewpoints, and exposing viewpoints to a diverse public’’. She said that this would allow citizens to engage with a range of representative views of issues, in order to understand where other citizens are coming from, and for facilitating compromise and overlapping consensus where possible.

This might be the case some years ago when even a monolith like Singapore Press Holdings pursued a competition policy among its stable of newsrooms. But news reports are now served out of a common kitchen and put in different packaging. A reader would do as well having a copy of the free New Paper, because the same stories can be found in the paid Straits Times and Business Times. Diversity of news and views and the variety of discussion has narrowed. There is less to read – and a paywall for premium content as well. According to the Nielsen Media Index Report 2017, only 55.9 per cent of adults read print and online newspapers in Singapore today.

Prof Thio added that people who choose to go online to obtain their news are “denied this exposure to differing viewpoints’’. Online news sites would beg to differ and argue that they offer viewpoints that do not exist in the mainstream media.

It is good that there is widespread support for quality journalism, even though 60 per cent of the people here agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumours and falsehoods.

The answers on how to raise the standard of journalism are predictable: Ramping up training and fact-checking – except there’s the question of who’s going to pay for this at a time when subscriptions go down and digital advertising doesn’t translate into big bucks. It can’t have escaped Select Committee’s notice that “fact-checkers’’ are a near-extinct breed in news organisations, accompanied by high staff turnovers, whether forced or voluntary. Even MSM editors lament the tremendous amount of resources that would have to go into verifying sources and checking facts. What journalism faces is a worldwide industry problem: The old business models aren’t good enough to ensure quality journalism – and good profits.

The panel said that commercial challenges aren’t within its remit, but is something the G and media organisations themselves have to think about. In my view, a suggestion by ex-journalist Nicholas Fang bears greater consideration. He proposed to separate the news functions of news organisations from the rest of the business, and be held under a not-for-profit umbrella where the sole mandate is to deliver excellence in journalism. The funding of local news organisations could be modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain, which is funded principally by an annual television licence fee charged to all British households, companies and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts.

It will probably be met by howls of protests.  Journalists will never make big bucks under such a system and consumers will scream at having to pay for news. Someone, however, has to foot the bill for quality work. Please do not apply to the G, because this means the media will never be free of the charge of being under “political influence’’. The whole Singapore media landscape bears a re-look.

What about online media? The committee says that the same standards of professionalism should apply online and offline. I agree, and I would add that there should be no double standards when it comes to access to official sources of information. MSM might carp about how online sites play fast and loose with the facts; they don’t say that it is far easier for them to obtain the facts compared to online media.

But if MSM finds it difficult to maintain its fact-checking resources, then I don’t know how online sites can do it. Funding must come from somewhere.

Want quality journalism? Pay for it.


Fake news report: It’s what comes next that is more important

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 7:24 am

So, at the end of the day, legislation to curb fake news looks like a sure thing. (I am not going to say it will happen because I must give Parliament the dignity of being able to say no). Reason: Current legislation isn’t good enough, especially in terms of curbing the quick spread of disinformation. Also, we now don’t have laws to compel the likes of technology companies like Twitter and Facebook to do anything. These social media platforms have to be accountable too.

Hence, laws.

That’s my one-cent worth of summary of the tome produced by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It’s really no surprise to me that some kind of law would be in the pipeline going by the way the committee handled the public hearings. Almost every representator was pinned down on the necessity for some sort of action to curb fake news.

Those who thought that current laws were good enough were wrong and they didn’t have evidence to prove that people here can discern fact from fiction, the panel said in its report.  As for the definition of fake news which had some people worried that it might be used to curb legitimate dissent, the panel said that falsehoods can be independently verified and the courts here have historically done so. So there!

It’s a massive report, albeit repetitive. If anyone needs a primer on fake news and examples to go with it, it’s recommended reading. The pity is that the examples are from the world over and the only significant Singapore example is the defunct TheRealSingapore, which had the Sedition Act thrown at it for spreading disinformation and creating dissent.

A lot of attention was paid to foreign State and non-State actors out to break social cohesion here by employing such “non-kinetic’’ warfare tactics. The pity is that not much light was shed on this for national security reasons so much so that we are left with assertions that cyber warfare is already happening here – and will continue to happen. Again, worldwide examples peppered the report and there was a brief reference to the SingHealth hack (which isn’t about fake news by the way but stealing). A significant portion was dedicated to big, bad Russia’s shenanigans.

Did the committee’s report allay fears that any new laws or regulations would be abused by the powers-that-be? Face it. That’s really the objection to fake news laws isn’t it? That the G would somehow use it to tamp down any opposition – and throw you in jail for it too.

The might of the elephant in the room was mentioned here and there, for example, in the discussion on who should decide on what is fake:

Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive. That said, both Law Dean Associate Professor Goh (Yi Han) and law academic Associate Professor Eugene Tan explained that judicial oversight of Executive action would serve a crucial balancing role in ensuring the propriety of the Executive’s exercise of discretion.

Civil society activists had tried to pull the elephant’s tail, by advocating a Freedom of Information Act and the introduction of an Ombudsman to investigate public complaints of executive excess. The supposition, methinks, is that more information is needed to counter fake information and a check on the G needed if it tried to do any kind of “cover up’’. The committee countered this by saying these were big issues and too multi-faceted a feature for the committee to take into account. The ball was, instead, lobbed to the G.

As there are countries which have such legislation and institutions, the Committee suggests that the Government studies the experience of these countries, and whether having a Freedom of Information Act and an ombudsman will help in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods.

As for allegations that such laws would produce a “chilling effect’’? To answer the question, the committee referred to the testimony of Mothership, the online news site.

Mothership testified that they did not experience a drop in traffic, nor a drop in contributions, comments and engagement on its platform as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime. This suggested the need for circumspection in assessing the extent of any potential “chilling effect”. The prospect of a “chilling effect” should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all.

The committee quoted liberally from Professor Thio Li-Ann’s representation to make the point that free speech isn’t being circumscribed.

She had said: “There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true. No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society … being informed not misinformed. Misleading people and … purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society and should form no part of such a society. There is no duty to publish what is not true: there is no interest in being misinformed.’’ 

Her  argument is that fake laws would protect “the marketplace of ideas’’ by driving out what is false so that people can come to conclusions based on the facts. In other words, it is a promotion of the democratic process.

Okay. So, if legislation is more or less to be expected, what did the committee propose to ensure that the net isn’t cast so wide that it catches every single lie, piece of satire, prank and deliberate falsehoods to bring down the country?

Methinks we should pay attention to two critical phrases that were used in the report: Prescribed threshold for intervention and criminal culpability. In other words, how bad should things get before the law kicks in? And how heavy should the law come down on purveyors of lies?  Should it be different strokes for different folks?

Representors said the threshold for intervention has to be based on a combination of factors such as magnitude and nature of impact, type of content and intent and identity of perpetrator and so forth. Also there are different degrees of disinformation and different sorts of lies.

On this, the panel recommended:

Criminal sanctions should be imposed on perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods. These deterrent measures should be applied only in circumstances that meet certain criteria. There should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability (i.e. intent or knowledge), in accordance with established criminal justice principles. There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder, and the erosion of trust in public institutions.

So no, the committee didn’t pin down weightages on each factor or draw up a matrix. In any case, we shouldn’t expect it to hammer in the nuts and bolts. What’s good is that it has taken into account different facets and motivations for spreading falsehoods and advises a calibrated approach. It remains for someone somewhere to draw up the “criteria’’ and translate it into legal language.

So, dear reader, I am leading you down to this point: The committee produced a pretty general report, replete with examples and backed up by experts both local and foreign. The G can now say that it has embarked on an extensive public consultation exercise. But the real bite of fake news laws will be what will be drafted by the executive. And that should mean a second round of scrutiny on “threshold’’, “criminal culpability’’ as well as penalties imposed.

I am hoping that a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill will be formed. But I am not betting on it.





Singapore – adrift

In News Reports on September 15, 2018 at 1:38 am

We’ve changed a great deal, thanks or no thanks to the Internet. Coffeeshop talk has gone online, shared and amplified. Now, we don’t even believe very much in indices and surveys, because they do not capture our own real life experience. Frankly, it probably has been the case anyway but the disbelief is more widespread now – and louder. Now, it’s fashionable to talk about a disconnect between people who are paid high salaries to come up with policies and the people who have to abide by them.

It’s an argument that is heard all the time, but, again, amplified: You don’t stay in HDB, so you don’t know. You don’t ride a bus, so you don’t know. You’re paid so much, so you don’t know.

I have never thought very much about this sort of argument which is intended to shut down an opposing view. Then I recall that the new SMRT head ditched his car to use public transport. He also moved house to be near his workplace. Some people applauded him for doing so (ditching car). It might be an expression of his commitment but methinks he’s over-compensating to appease unreasonable people who want leaders to “come down’’ to their level. There’s no need to ditch the car – or buy a new house to be closer to the workplace, you know…

So what is this sense of drift I’m referring to? Let me try to unpack it:

First, it’s a sense that things are not getting better for us, but worse. That sticking to tried and tested policies might not work for us in the future. We need some drastic re-tooling in some aspect of our society or economy, something path-breaking. We don’t want to be told about how far we’ve come, but where we want to go. Harking back to history is no longer good enough, unfortunately, especially since we know so little about our history!

There are redeeming features such as the Industry Transformation Programmes, SkillsFuture and attempts to change mindsets from academic prowess to craftsmanship. But they are being drowned out by a sense of a dread, even among our tech-savvy young people who believe that technology changes might mean smaller rice bowls for them. Is this sense of dread real? Or of our own imagining?

Second, it’s about whether the tenets of meritocracy are actually working. There’s some loss of faith in the system which used to enable a hawker’s son to rise to the top. Although there are still such examples to hold up, we don’t think it would continue in the future because some households will always have more advantages than others.

There are changes to pre-primary education, direct school admission and so forth,  to help ensure the same starting line for all but there’s still a sense that everything can still be “gamed’’, if you have the money and the connections.

Third, it’s about the multiracialism/multi-religious ethic that knits us together. Casual racism, taking offence easily, issues of Chinese privilege are coming to the fore. There is less of a live-and-let-live attitude here. Perhaps, the G is right to say that we need active ethnic intervention policies, but too many disagree, say, with the need to reserve the presidential office for communities who have not been elected for some time. And I think this cuts across all communities.

Fourth, It’s about whether Singapore, without its old leaders, can stay strong against a rising China and a less-than-friendly Malaysia. The G seems to think it is best to get things settled behind closed doors but the sounds from the outside are beginning to erode any zen feelings we might have. More importantly, did the G miscalculate this most important bilateral relationship that we have when it kept plumping for former PM Najib Razak? And does its faith in contractual agreements on matters such as the High Speed Railway demonstrate a certain amateurishness?

Fifth, It’s about little things getting more and more expensive and little things going wrong, like stuck trains, floods, falling slabs and killer lifts. To give the G credit, it moves fast to correct deficiencies as they occur.

All the above erode our confidence in ourselves and in our future. The media isn’t helping to pull people together. The mainstream media is at one end of the spectrum and seems intent on putting a good spin on things. Alternative media thinks it should balance this out by taking the opposite viewpoint. There is no centre of gravity in public discourse.

The G seems to think that the way to raise spirits, among other objectives, is to build a better living environment and most rah-rah announcements are about new towns, re-made towns and hubs of all kinds.

This isn’t enough. The centre cannot hold even if it is supported by concrete and steel.

Yesterday, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a stab at shoring up confidence for the future. We shouldn’t just make things, but create things. We shouldn’t just focus on getting foreign investments in but getting ourselves out there. We shouldn’t obsess over academic grades but pay attention to soft skills. But, like he said, the changes will take time to manifest themselves.

But this isn’t enough either. Beyond making sure we remain economically viable as a country, something needs to be said about the worth of the people, strengthening the  ties that bind us and becoming a society which is less intent on accumulating material goods and more concerned about becoming a kinder, civilized place. Can we, as a society, build soft skills around our hard core?

I am probably not making much sense – or making too much out of things. But that’s what “disquiet’’ is all about isn’t it? A loss of bearings. Of feeling unmoored. We need to get our confidence back and that can only come with strong leadership and bold moves. The vulnerability narrative might still be true, but the story isn’t resonating anymore. We need a new story and new leadership.

Who will stand up and offer us a different vision or a compelling narrative that will drown out all other voices? Or is this current disquiet the new normal? The internet has muddied everything. The media is divided into the pro-Establishment mainstream and the anti-Establishment online. There is no common rallying point much less a meaningful common message for everyone.

Or maybe there is a common message: We’re drifting.