Can we talk about what to do with fake news here?

Apr 01, 2017 04.30PM |

by Bertha Henson 

WE KNOW the terms by now: fake news, post-truth, alternative facts, truthful hyperbole. Maybe not the last term, which was coined by US President Donald Trump to mean, presumably, an exaggerated, embellished fact which he believes doesn’t make it a lie.

Countries around the world are grappling with the fake news phenomenon in many ways, through laws, code of conduct, fact-checking sites and community action. Even Russia, said to be behind countless hacking attempts, has its own tracker of fake news. It has a webpage which lumps together articles which says “Fake’’, with data “not corresponding to the truth”. They include articles from the New York Times and Bloomberg.

Political leaders round the world are raising a ruckus over how the phenomenon appears to be undermining liberal democracy and, presumably, their chances of getting elected or re-elected. Populism, fuelled by conspiracy theories and fed by feelings rather than facts, are threatening to destabilise a political and governing framework based on reason.

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The Germans want to fine the tech companies; the tech companies are taking steps to flag fake news and advertisers want some distance between their money and hate sites. Google and Facebook can no longer hide between the facade of being mere tech companies with no ethical obligation over the way they distribute fake content. We might applaud their efforts but with it, must come an understanding that we are letting two mighty giants who already funnel most of our information, decide what is real and what is fake.

The agency with the most clout to eradicate or at least minimise fake news dissemination is the State. But with it comes the question of whether it would be doing so in its own interest, by blacking out “uncomfortable truths’’ that don’t support their policies or do their image any favours. See the Russian fact-checker above.

In fact, the Canadians kicked up a fuss when a junior minister asked what sort of role the Government should play in the control of fake news. The popular answer: None.

In Singapore, it would be natural for citizens to ask that the G take the lead. You can say that this is characteristic of the trust placed in the G or that citizens can’t be bothered or aren’t bothered enough to do the job themselves.

The nanny state is about to oblige, going by recent pronouncements from the G. The Law ministry has made no bones about it: “The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions.”

“At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making. Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention.”

The Broadcasting Act is also being reviewed and it is likely to contain a prohibition on fake news. There will be the usual questions about how this is defined and how it will be policed. There will also be the question of whether this is necessary given the proliferation of tools in the G’s armoury.

The Sedition Act, for example, covers hate speech and ensured the shutdown of TheRealSingapore. The Media Development Authority has registration or licensing of sites with pre-dominantly local content as well as the Class Licence scheme which covers all websites automatically with injunctions on pornography, violence and such like. The courts can issue take-down orders if people feel that they have been unfairly harassed online. There is the Administration of Justice Act which stops people from intervening while the wheels of justice are still turning. There is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Telecommunications Act and the Penal Code should fake news lead to actions that disrupt law and order or have the potential to.

The argument for a new weapon will be that there is none which can counter fake news per se. So it isn’t hate speech but deliberate untruths that could be malicious or done for fun or for profit but which doesn’t necessarily lead to law and order problems. Another argument: A concerted fake news campaign with a political agenda will also lead to the slow erosion of trust in the system and its institutions. This should be stopped in its tracks. Trouble is, says who and why?

Singapore will say that it is too small and fragile a country to allow fake news which could lead to greater polarisation tearing the country apart. As the Law ministry put it: “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.”

The Russians will say that Westerners do not understand its unique political system and its people should be insulated from its adverse effects. (Note that fake news could simply be facts that are twisted to suit a certain agenda, in this case, a Western agenda.)

The Chinese will sniff at the question. They already have a whole eco-system of information distribution and censorship that keeps its people behind a wall.

The Americans are in a funk because its political leadership thinks that fake news includes unfavourable news. But its citizens and journalists are taking matters into their own hands by setting up fact-checking sites and calling out lies.

The Americans are taking a bottom-up response, probably because they believe their own leadership can’t do it.

Likewise, the French have a First Draft News project called CrossCheck, a collaborative verification programme involving technology firms including Facebook and Google.

Journalists from across France work together to find and verify online content, including photos, videos, memes, comment threads and news sites. The public are encouraged to participate by submitting questions and links to content for CrossCheck to investigate.

Britain, however, is taking its time. Its Culture, Media and Sport Committee are asking for public submissions and has come up with some very interesting questions both for the layman and the expert.

  • What is ‘fake news’? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?
  • What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world, and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?
  • Is there any difference in the way people of different ages, social backgrounds, genders etc use and respond to fake news?
  • Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?
  • What responsibilities do search engines and social media platforms have, particularly those which are accessible to young people? Is it viable to use computer-generated algorithms to root out ‘fake news’ from genuine reporting?
  • How can we educate people in how to assess and use different sources of news?
  • Are there differences between the UK and other countries in the degree to which people accept ‘fake news’, given our tradition of public service broadcasting and newspaper readership?
  • How have other governments responded to fake news?

Such a public inquiry is a long process. Perhaps, it is because Britain has already Brexited or has Brexit as a case study, that it is taking its time to come to grips with phenomena.

In Singapore, it looks like the usual efficient mechanism will kick in. A Bill will be introduced, followed a month or so later by a parliamentary debate, and the legislation goes through because of the preponderance of G backbenchers.

Maybe we should be lucky that it is legislation being proposed that must be subjected to parliament scrutiny, rather than a regulation that can be imposed by fiat. Perhaps, the answers to the list of questions above can be debated in Parliament.

But what can the G do to assuage those who wonder who watches the watchmen?

That’s something to think about.


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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