berthahenson

Fake news: Forestalling winter

In News Reports on January 10, 2018 at 11:17 am

I wanted to write a column on the Green Paper produced by the G on the challenges posed by fake news. But I thought I should wait until Parliament moves to set up a select committee to examine the issue in case more views came forth from our elected representatives. I couldn’t be in Parliament earlier but I think I’ve caught up on whatever has been said.

Frankly, I don’t think more insights have been given. Local examples were still the same, like TheRealSingapore case and the faked photograph of a collapsed block in Punggol). No one doubts the harm that fake news, or rather people who take fake news for news, can do.

They can upend elections, cause insurrections, create panic and ignite some sort of mini-apocalypse because some people want to make money off eyeballs, pursue a political agenda or are plain mischief-makers.

The concerns over measures to curb them are similar around the world, such as drawing the line between legitimate comment and deliberate falsehood. People’s concerns revolve on whether this would lead to further curbs on free speech, if not by fiat, than by the individual’s inclination to not do/say the wrong thing because he isn’t sure. And the Singaporean is more kiasi than others.

The Green Paper takes readers round the world on the trouble fake news have wrought and the measures various governments have taken or are thinking of taking.

Then there is a section on the implications for Singapore and options that can be considered. Singapore is, as the paper put it, an attractive and vulnerable target because it is open and has a multi-racial and religious mix that can be easily ignited. (I’ve said this in far fewer words than the folks who drafted the paper.)

Also, “Singapore is a key strategic node for international finance, trade, travel and communications, and a key player in ASEAN. What Singapore says and the position that Singapore takes on global and regional issues matter.’’ There is, therefore, a “high risk of foreign interference’’. Woah.

Quite a lot of space was given on the possible role of nefarious foreigners, with historical examples being trotted out on foreign involvement with local dailies here like The Herald or The Eastern Sun. Perhaps, the G is thinking of putting even more screws on online news sites by requiring even more transparency on operators and donors.

I wish there was more information on the Singapore context, rather than the usual line about being small, open and vulnerable.

What is the extent of Singaporean understanding of what constitutes fake news?  Recall that Minister Chan Chun Sing lambasted Reuters for running fake news because it headlined him as saying that he would serve as PM if called upon. He was upset that it wasn’t placed in context: He said that he, as well as his colleagues, would serve would do so. To enjoy the fake news label, it means that it is NOT true that he would serve as PM if asked. Which surely cannot be the case. His response had the media community tittering about the line between deliberate falsehood and lack of context.

I cite another example and I declare my interest here. Last year, a BlackBox survey said that people believe that The Middle Ground (of which I am a founder) peddled fake news, and this was reported in The Straits Times. I wondered then if those interviewed had even read the website or understood the term, and am even more aghast that journalists in ST, whom I’m sure read the TMG website, should actually think the team peddled fake news and considered the survey worthy of reporting.

Another point about the Singapore context. We already have many laws, regulations and blurry OB markers that govern what we say.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun is right to call for a deeper look at existing laws, such as the Telecommunications Act – where knowingly transmitting a false message could lead to a fine and jail term – and the Protection from Harassment Act and Sedition Act.

I don’t think I would be breaking the Official Secrets Act to say that I was invited several months ago by the Law ministry to give my views on measures to curb fake news. I said that I would have first to be convinced that current legislation isn’t enough to deal with the phenomenon. After all, we are concerned not with fake news per se (and there are plenty which are posted for laughs), but its possible impact, and our laws are surely broad enough to counter any speech that is calculated to cause societal problems. (Here, I would like to append this article from the New York Times re-printed in ST on Jan 2: http://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/fake-news-wide-reach-but-little-impact-study-suggests )

It’s a pity then that the Green Paper didn’t lay out the laws that affect speech in Singapore.  We’ve also got the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (soon to be changed too), Penal Code, Administration of Justice Act, defamation (including criminal defamation) laws and various media codes like the Class Licence Act. And who knows what the much-delayed Bill to amend the Broadcasting Act will toss up?

Further context: I don’t think people will disagree that the climate here is getting chillier, and it’s not because of the rain. I can count at least 10 instances of tightening OB markers in the last year alone. This includes the contempt of court charges on Mr Li Shengwu for remarks about the judiciary intended for a circle of friends on FB and the worrying use of the Official Secrets Act because a journalist had tried to do legitimate journalism by checking on what her source told her.

Like many, I was heartened to read that instead of merely introducing legislation, a  select committee has been tasked to deliberate on the principles to guide Singapore’s response and “specific measures, including legislation’’.

Note, therefore, that legislation is not a given. In fact, going by an ST article (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/a-broader-conversation-and-more-time-needed-on-how-spore-should-deal-with-fake-news), what our legal tools cannot deal with are foreign sources, bots and phantom accounts. This gives hope for a scalpel approach rather than a sledge hammer in the tool box. There is one measure, though, which I hope will be implemented – that online as well as offline articles and programmes must indicate if they had been paid for and by whom, prominently. It’s a bit like what France is doing: having tougher rules for social media platforms on revealing sources of sponsored content.

I agree with MP Seah Kian Peng who said: “Heavy-handed legislation may backfire on the Government, acting as the judge, jury and executioner of what constitutes credible information. We may end up freezing free speech online.’’

Now, I am NOT going to use that Game of Thrones phrase.

 

 

 

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