Fake news – state, industry, community and trust

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By: Howard Lee

The latest proclamation by Law Minister K Shanmugam on the need to combat fake news can only point to one thing – the further tightening of social political discourse in the online environment.

Let us not be beguiled by the rhetoric that will soon follow leading up to amendments to our media regulations that will surely be targeted primarily at online news websites. There will be strident calls to curb the scourge of “fake news”, most likely without a clear and distinct classification of what fake news means, and anyone who does not aligned with this sabre-rattling will be deemed as having some perverse motive.

But let us also not ease off on the issue of fake news. There is a danger if news that deliberately seeks to deceive does into widespread circulation, which is something that we cannot and should not. But there are three pertinent questions that have so far eluded discussion, which are critical to how we understand this issue: How exactly do we define “fake news”? Are our current laws sufficient to deal with the issue? And finally, who is the best party to deal with such news?

What is fake news, ah?

As it currently stands, the Law Minister has cast too wide a berth in defining fake news. Mr Shanmugam was clearly at ease citing what The Real Singapore published on the Thaipusam race-related incident as an example, but he also threw out this rather sweeping warning statement:

“If not quickly corrected, they can cause harm to Singaporeans, alarm to public, emergency resources will have to be diverted, and reputations of businesses and people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged.”

That covers a lot, really. Anything that causes alarm to the public – would that not include seemingly racist remarks made against children by a self-declared public figure that created an uproar? Harm to reputations of businesses – perhaps an incident where a self-declared citizen-journalism website sought to create an incident about a public transport operator’s safety standards?

It would also be worth noting that there is no distinction between a fair comment and a deliberate attempt to deceive, what is produced by a news source and what passes off as viral content in personal networks.  Who, then, will be at risk of producing fake news? Without this clarity in very specific form, we risk having another broad and ambiguous law that throws too many incidents under its wing.

Current laws cannot meh?

Even so, we have yet to deal with the issue of whether our existing laws are sufficient to deal with incidents of “fake news”, however those might be defined. According to Mr Shanmugam, our laws are inadequate:

“It is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit messages knowing it is false. But these remedies are ineffective. They were really looking at a time before this new age. The circulation of falsehoods can grow viral today very quickly, and so we need to do more.”

Of course, if we were to take every single Whatsapp message and Facebook share – from fake kidnapping alerts to racist jokes – that passes as viral content from family and friends as transmitting false messages, then clearly we have a massive problem. This also clearly points back to the earlier point about definitions of fake news.

The issue then would be what the government would want to reasonably tackle, and on that count it is by no means helpless given the laws we have today. In fact, it is more than equipped to take the necessary actions, as the Law Minister has so eloquently cited the case of TRS. The government clearly has the means to not only shut-down the website, but also bring its owners to court.

If anything, the laws we currently have allows the government such extreme actions – completely closing down a website and jailing its owners – that we have to wonder what the Law Minister means by “we need to do more”. Unless the future approach is to tone down existing laws to allow a more measured and considered approached, as opposed to closing a website, this “more” is clearly not for the better.

Who says fake leh?

Even if there really is a need to do more, should it be to adjust our laws, and should the government even be involved? Unfortunately, it really does not help our appreciation of the issue when the Law Minister has laid yet another layer on the scourge of fake news:

“Fake news today, we must assume can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign governments… to get into the public mind, to destabilise the public, to psychologically weaken them. That’s a very serious threat and it will be naive for us to believe that governments or state agencies don’t engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do.”

This government-vs-government narrative sounds a lot like espionage and counterespionage, so surely we should leave it to the government to handle? Perhaps, but a foreign government playing psychological warfare with the Singapore public sounds an awful lot like the Russians hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails and making her online activities public. If so, why should we look at amendments to laws governing media use? Should we not seriously reconsider a change in foreign policy or cyber security measures to nip the issue in the bud?

Furthermore, does the government have actual proof that a foreign government is attempting “destabilise the Singapore public” using fake news? If so, why not share it for public safety, so that we can all be the wiser from it? What was this fake news that we have been duped into believe that the “high standards” of our journalists could not pick up? If none exist, why is this even relevant to the proposal, if not a rumour-mongering attempt to justify a blank check approach for implementing more draconian laws?

A bit of faith and trust

If the government wishes to tackle fake news in the public sphere, then it must know that among all the parties involved in this process, it has proven to be the slowest actor and the least capable of making an impact. When a certain citizen journalism website saw fit to post a fabricated story about our National Serviceman not giving up his seat on the train, potentially destabilising a key strata of our national security, we hardly heard a peep from the government or the Ministry of Defence.

Instead, it was left to the online community to weed out the story, and a ground-up initiative to help us regain confidence in our boys in green. It would appear that when it comes down to fake news, the online CSI, common sense and a good heart does a great deal more than laws and empty government statements.

Combating fake news also depends a lot on trust in the target of the fake news. And interestingly enough, the government is more than adept at building this trust. The Army was more than ready to trumpet the good works done by its own servicemen on the trains, possibly in a bid to counter the earlier bad publicity, using little more than its own online resources. If SAF is capable of doing this, why would the government fear the scourge of fake news?

Hope is just around the social media street corner, and instead of taking it up as a fight on another street corner, the government should let the community do its work, and then spend time building its own trust quotient online. As it currently stands, this appears to be the most sensible and effective approach to countering fake news, rather than rolling out more laws.