Media and technology: Reality redefined

ST Future Economy Roundtable: Navigating the new media environment

It's being savvy about the opportunities - and the risks, say Roundtable panellists

Q. The broad trend in recent years has been not just a shift to digital, but also a convergence in technologies. How do you see this playing out?

GABRIEL LIM We see that convergence growing. It's no longer just about the equipment or the hardware, but what goes on underneath it, both the software and also the content that comes through it.

We talk about Artificial Intelligence or Virtual Reality; the new buzzword is mixed reality (MR). We've seen this in the way viewers consume media. It's no longer just on the TV at fixed appointment schedules. It's on the go, on your mobile, and increasingly through augmented reality displays.

And it goes into many aspects, for example, advertising and so on. I think that space will continue to grow. The opportunities are tremendous if we are able to gear ourselves up, get familiar with this and to prepare our people, our workers, our companies with the skill sets and capabilities.

Q. Part of the challenge is the pace of change. Its only been several years since the advent of the iPad and tablets. Now, we are moving ahead with smartphones. Content providers have to cope with this relentless change. Plus we don't know where the next big change is coming from.


Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez (right), with panellists (from left) Prof Ang Peng Hwa, Mr Gabriel Lim and Mr Parin Mehta during the Future Economy Roundtable on Media on June 27.  ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

ANG PENG HWA That shows the industry models have not stabilised yet. So whatever policies we put in place are experimental and need wide consultation. There is no foolproof way, but while we can't assure success, we should at least try to minimise the chances of failure.

The classic example is Uber, where you are trying to balance the need for innovation, but this entails some violation of existing rules. And so it's a balancing of the two; and the process of how we make those rules needs to change in the face of this convergence.

  • PANELLISTS

  • ANG PENG HWA, Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University

    GABRIEL LIM, Chief executive-designate of Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore

    PARIN MEHTA, Head of Strategic Partnerships for South-east Asia at Google

  • MODERATOR

  • WARREN FERNANDEZ, Editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and Editor of The Straits Times

Q. It's interesting you mention Uber, because we often forget that it's not only the media that's being disrupted, all industries are disrupted, not just traditional media or mainstream media.

ANG Yes, I am doing a research project in India on Uber. We found that people like to use Uber because they could track where the taxi is, so they feel safer. But (once they are cut off from mobile Internet access) without Uber, fewer people actually go out. So business suffers. Not so much because of Uber, but because of the lack of being able to track where your loved ones are.

PARIN MEHTA The challenge is consumers or users always move faster than any other organisation. At Google, we have tools like Google Trends that help people figure out what the world might look like. But the key is for everyone to remain innovative and try to keep a (finger on the) pulse on what users are doing.

So, in Asia Pacific, for example, we have a lot of users using chat apps which five years ago probably didn't exist, and these are now the primary way people tend to communicate online.

Q. Has Google seen the same drift of audiences from desktops to smartphones?

MEHTA Absolutely. In Asia more so than anywhere else... And the activities that people do online are getting more complicated. Some regularly shop online or use transport apps, or they will look for entertainment online.

Q. When people go online it's not just about gathering information, but also entertainment, connections with friends.

MEHTA Yes, there's both the consumption and creation of content. Platforms like YouTube or Google Play allow you to create your own apps, content or videos and distribute them to a global audience.

Such wide distribution ability was never available before and is very exciting.

Q. There was a big debate recently about Facebook and its interventions in terms of content and deciding what goes on its trending list. So you get into issues of editing and judgments and political interventions.

ANG Yes, I was at a Google presentation, and raised the point that your system is potentially biased. And the engineer says, well, there's no bias in this.

Q. It's all based on an algorithm?

ANG Yes, exactly. He saw it purely as collecting the news. So he didn't see any issue of values behind this. He didn't see any issue of potential bias.

LIM One of the big trends we see is how much the individual, the consumer, the viewer, is in control. We are moving from a top- down, hierarchical form of operating to organising ourselves on a more peer-to-peer, crowdsourcing, network arrangement.

And we see that in multiple areas. Social media is an example. You are not just a reader but you're an active contributor. If you take Facebook, it's a platform. The content is user-generated. If users don't generate the content, everybody just sits back and reads, there will be nothing to read.

We see this in many other areas, Uber or Airbnb; you are not just a consumer, you could be a hotelier renting out your room or apartment. You could sign up to be a Uber driver using your car to be a private limousine service provider. We see this in multiple areas - retail and so on, where the consumer is more in charge.

With regard to the news, even with algorithms that may be apolitical or completely unbiased, you end up, however, reinforcing the individual's own biases in terms of what he reads, downloads, posts. There is a risk that you have a certain echo chamber effect, where as a viewer, I like certain topics, I trend towards certain positions or issues, and that algorithm picks that up and reinforces that over time.

That's one of the issues that we are mindful of. Obviously, it matters to us in a multiracial, multi-religious society that some issues don't get overly exaggerated.

You want individuals to bear more responsibility for what they are reading, what they are downloading, to encourage them to take a wider perspective, that outside of your point of view or your social circle's consensus on specific issues, there are other issues or perspectives you should be open to.

ANG Gabriel's point is important. Beyond what happens when you click, you actually promote that content, not just to yourself but potentially to others if you're clicking certain kinds of news. Google might say, well, that's the most clicked or most shared or most read, and that moves that news item up. So, if you don't like to see certain news, don't click on it.

LIM How we deal with this goes beyond regulations, but is also a question of media literacy; so that people understand that there are these media opportunities, but also potential risks. And its about a broader awareness and savviness about how you navigate the new digital environment, recognising the wonderful opportunities but also being mindful of the risks, and being prepared, and given the tools, the knowledge, to be able to overcome some of these things.

Q. In a way, it's liberating because the technology has made it possible to go to any source of information, and affordable to do so, as well. But the competition these days seems to be for people's time and attention, because we are all inundated with content and there's so many things to do online.

Take a real-life example, the recent Brexit turmoil . It was amazing to see the reaction the day after the vote, when the top item people searched for was "What is the European Union?", or "What happens when we leave the EU?", or "Could we please do this again?" It does make you wonder what was going on in the minds of media consumers in the run-up to that vote. Also, there was so much misinformation put out, but an inability of the key media and political players to deal with that and shape public opinion.

LIM What emerged clearly after the Brexit vote was just how divided Britain was. There were substantive issues within society that they have to confront, quite apart from how the media was involved.

But this also shows just how powerful the media is in terms of shaping opinion and amplifying or multiplying prevailing points of view.

And that there is something to be said for responsible reporting, and responsible political campaigning. I noticed several politicians were backtracking from some of the campaign slogans that they put out which clearly shaped the minds of the voters.

And it's about being responsible, I'm tempted to say digital citizens, but it's much larger than that - just being responsible people in terms of the views we put out, the views we share, and sort of the issues that we raise. And the media will amplify that, but fundamentally what drives this is a more basic issue of how certain issues have to be handled properly on a day-to-day basis.

ANG In the last general election, the studies we did found that people look online for alternative views, but when it comes to the crunch, they still trust a lot in the mainstream media.

It's not just here but globally, people still look at mainstream media for news, for that gatekeeping, filtering, professional standards, because online, who's checking?

LIM What's important is credibility, to be able to provide a certain perspective that's balanced, neutral and which people trust. From a regulatory point of view, we have never shirked from calling out bare- faced lies or when views are being put out that have real implications.

(Sociopolitical website The Real Singapore's co-founders were jailed for sedition for publishing fabricated content that risked inciting ill-will among various groups in Singapore. They did so to draw eyeballs to their website and boost their advertising revenues.)

These are not just opinions being shared, but views that lead to social tensions and other implications for society. If they are wrong, false or engineered, we have to put a stop to this.

So with regard to The Real Singapore website, that was the approach we took; where the actions or the information that's being spread wrongly has very serious egregious implications on relations between the racial groups, we have to move.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Navigating the new mediaenvironment'. Print Edition | Subscribe