2016:A YEAR OF DISRUPTION

When fantasy invades real life

Above: Crowds of people playing Pokemon Go in Hougang Avenue 10 on Aug 13. Left: Pokemon Go players engrossed in the game in Orchard Road.
Crowds of people playing Pokemon Go in Hougang Avenue 10 on Aug 13.ST FILE PHOTOS
Above: Crowds of people playing Pokemon Go in Hougang Avenue 10 on Aug 13. Left: Pokemon Go players engrossed in the game in Orchard Road.
Pokemon Go players engrossed in the game in Orchard Road.ST FILE PHOTOS

The line between the real and digital worlds is blurring.

Case in point: Pokemon Go, which was responsible for several cases of players trespassing and being involved in fatal traffic accidents in the real world after the mobile game was first released in the United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 6.

On Aug 6, when it was finally launched in Singapore, several government agencies issued advisories, urging players here to put safety first and not to trespass on restricted or private property.

The game lets players visit PokeStops tied to real-life locations and collect free items to catch virtual creatures called Pokemon on their smartphones. It took the world, and Singapore, by storm.

No fatal accidents were recorded in Singapore. But two men were arrested for fighting outside Plaza Singapura over the game. One, a driver, had honked at the other, a pedestrian, for playing the game while crossing the road.

Police also had to step up patrols in Hougang after hundreds of Pokemon Go players gathered for hours in front of Block 401 in Hougang Avenue 10, where rare Pokemon had reportedly appeared.

The game's impact was even discussed in Parliament in August, with the House agreeing that excessive regulation should be avoided so as not to stifle innovation.

Social media is also changing the way people read news online and perceive events in the real world.

The power of social media was demonstrated in the recent United States presidential election. Fake pro-Donald Trump news went viral on Facebook, which some people believe led to his surprising win. One fake news story before the election claimed that Mr Trump was endorsed by the Pope.

Under mounting pressure to weed out fake news, Facebook started to roll out new tools on Dec 16 to allow users and third-party checkers to flag inaccurate articles.

Select Facebook users in the US can flag a fake article visibly, and the Poynter Institute's global network of fact-checking organisations can tag questionable articles with the label, "Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers".

Disputed stories may appear less prominently on users' news feeds.

Publishers of fake articles also cannot promote them as Facebook paid advertisements. This way, fake news creators would not be able to profit from their scams.

Critics said the system can be abused as anyone can falsely tag articles to punish genuine news organisations or to subvert the fake-news reporting process itself.

In the absence of a foolproof solution, it seems best for netizens to exercise more scepticism when reading or self-restraint in sharing online news that cannot be verified.

Irene Tham

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2016, with the headline 'When fantasy invades real life'. Print Edition | Subscribe