Unless you’ve been deprived of Internet access for the past week, you’d know that a Select Committee has been appointed to tackle online fake news in Singapore.
All 80 Members of Parliament, including opposition MPs and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), voted to carry the motion tabled by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam on Jan 10.
Called the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, it is tasked with examining and reporting on the causes and consequences of online falsehoods, and to propose countermeasures, which could include legislation where necessary.
This Select Committee is expected to begin public hearings in the second half of March, after which it will make its deliberations before presenting its recommendations to Parliament.
Meanwhile, Singapore remains, in the words of Minister Shanmugam, “highly susceptible” to fake news.
But what is fake news? The Pride asks The New Paper’s editor, Eugene Wee, 43. He calls it “wrong” news.
Where there may be unintended errors where an apology and correction follows the pointing out of such, the more sinister “wrong” news “intentionally omits, distorts, or portrays facts with an agenda for profit, political mileage or fame”.
“Often, when it is pointed out that there are provable falsehoods, the author ignores it, refuses to amend the piece and does so without apology,” adds Wee.
And how does one detect fake news?
Step 1: Read the whole story
“Many people read headlines and react based just on the headline. Read the whole story, then you have more information with which to decide,” says Wee.
Step 2: Do an online search on the key words that appear in the story to see if the mainstream media has picked it up
“If a piece of news goes viral, the mainstream media, whose business it is to report news, would run the story. And because mainstream media holds itself accountable, it will always do the necessary checks before running a story. If the news story appears only on websites you’ve never heard of and no author is named, your fake news antenna should go up,” explains Wee.
Step 3: Check if the story cites multiple sources and has a statement or quote from the relevant authorities
“Often, online sites pick up a social media post or a forum post without doing any checks (with the police or any relevant authority) regarding the veracity of the claims. You can be more confident that it is not fake if the site makes an effort to check with the authorities or if the site has contacted the person who posted it to get more information,” adds Wee.
As editor of The New Paper, it is second-nature for Wee to make sure no fake news gets published.
“It’s just being very thorough about checking sources, verifying facts, getting multiple confirmations, then checking again.”
Yet, despite stringent checks and verifications, a mainstream media publication such as The New Paper can get things wrong, too.
“If inaccurate info gets published, we apologise, make the corrections, and learn from it,” says Wee.
While a government survey of 1,617 Singapore residents aged 15 and older revealed that two out of three could not detect fake news when they first saw it, Wee believes it isn’t something uniquely Singaporean.
“Surveys in countries like Australia and the US also found the same thing,” says Wee. “I know people, many of them degree holders, who keep forwarding and sharing fake news on social media and messaging groups despite me telling them to always check before sending. Their response is always, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ Or, ‘Hur hur, I just send for fun’.”
Wee thinks this tendency to share news without verifying its accuracy is because of a deluge of information and lack of consequences for sharing fake news online.
“At the most, they get a friend chiding them about believing it,” he adds.
But would tougher laws curb the proliferation of fake news?
“It would help with the accountability part. But fake news can be created and spread from beyond our borders. Look at The Real Singapore. They ran their fake news business from Australia. It was only when they came back to Singapore that they were caught,” says Wee.
He believes the best way to guard against fake news is for readers to be more media literate, to question the source and accuracy of everything they read.
“This includes news from the mainstream media because we can make mistakes, too,” he concedes. “Fortunately, this education has already started – our polytechnics and universities have introduced lessons to help students differentiate fake news from real news.”
Veteran journalist PN Balji, former CEO of MediaCorp Press and the chief editor of TODAY when the publication was launched in 2000, also feels that there are ways other than tougher legislation to deal with fake news. He tells The Pride that fake news has been around from time immemorial.
“The only difference is that the entry of online media into the world of instant communication has amplified the problem,” says Balji, 70, who was also editor of The New Paper and now writes for several online media outlets.
“There are enough laws to deal with hate and lies that are spewed online: The Broadcasting Act has the power to ban websites. Criminal law can be used in cases of defamation, sedition and harassment. And the Telecommunications Act gives the authorities the power to fine and/or jail a person for knowingly transmitting a false message,” he says.
However, he believes the government could think these laws inadequate in today’s fast-moving world – as separating fact from fiction takes longer than spreading of fake news.
“So the intention could be to take the battle to fake news propagators. Make them think twice before the temptation to hit the keypad takes over,” he adds.
He feels that fake news thrives in a space filled with simple minds.
“I would argue that falsehoods gain traction because of the citizenry’s poor ability to check, analyse and comment on what they read in the online space. Mischief makers are everywhere. So are naïve minds who accept everything that is fed to them. That is the deeper problem.”
The way forward?
“A country that allows intelligent, robust debate doesn’t need such legislation,” says Balji, who thinks the group set up to look into this issue has already been “cornered into thinking with a one-track mind”.
“Look at the name given to the group: Select Committee On Deliberate Online Falsehoods. This title has already prejudged the issue,” says Balji. “There is no doubt there is a lot of falsehoods being thrown about in the online space. But isn’t there some kind of twisting of facts or, to put it mildly, not giving the full facts in offline media?”
Should the Select Committee decide on legislation, it should deliberate on the form of the law.
“Identifying online gatekeepers is one such possibility,” he adds. These would be individuals – perhaps like himself, though he did not say it – who would make their own checks on any story and assess its veracity, sharing their findings thereafter. But could a government gatekeeper do that job?
“The moment there is an official in place to do this, there will be suspicions,” he explains. “But of course, I’m speaking of an ideal,” he concedes.
“There is also a need to define and determine who an Internet content provider is,” he adds. Which means for the legislation to be effective, there has to be greater clarity in the definition of what a news source is. While it is already clear when it comes to traditional news outlets like mainstream media, the authorities have to consider whether someone who is, say, a popular blogger should be defined as a content provider.
And what would these two media professionals suggest to the Select Committee?
“I think the focus should be on education,” says TNP editor Wee. “Perhaps start at the secondary school level when students are just starting to go online unsupervised as part of their school and social life. Being skeptical of fake news is a habit that you can inculcate from young, just like cleanliness and courtesy. The demand side of the fake news equation is easier to solve and will probably have more impact,” he adds.
Balji, meanwhile, believes that using legislation to kill off fake news would be a short-term measure that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
“The solution should be a long-term one: Allow the citizenry freedom to debate issues, get them to critically analyse current affairs and dig deeper into topics, even sensitive ones. That way, we will have not only a well-informed society but also a society that can spot fake news from far away.”
You can have your say, too: The Select Committee welcomes members of the public to send in their suggestions on the matter. Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, the chairman of the 10-member committee, told The Straits Times: “The committee’s work will be assisted by hearing a wide range of views from the public. I encourage everyone with an interest in this subject to write in with their views and suggestions.”
Suggestions from the public should reach the Select Committee before the end of February. To learn more on how to make your submission, visit this page.