Governments strike back with rebuttals and new laws

Any information about the Central Provident Fund, which holds the retirement savings of Singaporeans, is sure to attract attention - and now, fake news perpetrators.

Earlier this month, a message on WhatsApp, SMS and social media falsely warned: "Everybody please note that when we kick the bucket, all our balance CPF money will not be automatically deposited into our nominated NOK (next of kin) bank account in cash."

It claimed that the CPF Board would instead transfer the balance funds to a nominee's CPF Medisave account, which is restricted in use to medical expenses.

As the message spread, the Government swung into action to debunk it. An explanation was posted on government website Factually: "What happens to your CPF savings when you die? By default, the money will be given to your nominees in cash via cheque or Giro."

The site, set up in 2012, is one of the ways the Government is tackling phoney news and misinformation that mislead people and could potentially harm the social fabric.

Over the years, it has countered inaccurate assertions on issues such as the water price hike and what ministers reportedly said.

HARD TO PIN DOWN

It is not only difficult to define 'fake news' in a consistent manner, the varying context in different countries may cause confusion and conflict.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY LAW DON EUGENE TAN, on the challenges in implementing laws to tackle fabricated news.

With the rise of fake news, governments have set up services and departments to counter it. The Czech Republic, for instance, has formed a special media unit under its Interior Ministry that is charged with debunking false reports, in order to counter interference in the upcoming general election in October.

GIVING LAW MORE TEETH

But as governments around the world recognise that bogus information must be actively fought, more are looking to legislation and regulation as more effective weapons.

Singapore is among a handful of countries to announce plans for new laws to curb fabricated stories.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last week at The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers conference on fake news that officials here have visited Germany and Britain to help shape new legislation to be introduced next year.

Germany has unveiled a landmark Bill to take social networking sites to task - with fines of up to €50 million (S$78 million) - if they do not swiftly remove content that is fake, defamatory or incites hate.

Britain has set up a parliamentary committee to look into the matter.

One difficulty is how such laws can be implemented. "It is not only difficult to define 'fake news' in a consistent manner, the varying context in different countries may cause confusion and conflict," said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan at a forum workshop during the conference.

Other participants said governments themselves are sometimes part of the fake news problem and cannot be both "the judge and the jury".

Ms Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of Manila-based online news site Rappler, told a panel the Philippine government sometimes allowed inaccurate news reports to spread when they served its purposes.

Associate Professor Tan suggested setting up independent regulatory bodies that are not tied to the interests of big corporations or the state and could be objective.

Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez said governments can make a difference by safeguarding the media landscape against those who seek to exploit readers for profit, out of mischief or for political gain. He noted that efforts by Mr Shanmugam to expose those behind sites like The Real Singapore, which routinely put out fake news for profit and make it a point to undermine mainstream media, have raised awareness about the issue and helped people become more critical of what they read.

Mr Fernandez added: "But I'm also conscious of the points made by many about how in some cases abroad, when governments try to be part of the solution, they sometimes can end up being part of the problem."

INDEPENDENT FACT-CHECKERS

Around the world, independent fact-checking organisations have sprung up to fight the problem. In the recent British elections, two such organisations, Full Fact and First Draft, started an initiative to educate voters about fraudulent news, with fact-checkers scanning the Internet for reports with misleading claims and debunking them, reported The Guardian.

According to the Duke Reporters' Lab at Duke University in the United States, there are around 114 such groups globally today.

And while some are attached to news organisations, others are set up by non-profit organisations.

Forum panellist Karolin Schwarz, founder of Hoaxmap.org, which seeks to debunk rumours about migrants, said collaboration between journalists and fact-checking organisations is crucial.

In Germany where she comes from, fake news is not as common as falsehoods circulated on social media, such as falsely attributed photos, videos and quotes. Hence, she said, it is important to work with local agencies and others to verify the truth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Governments strike back with rebuttals and new laws'. Print Edition | Subscribe