Battle against fake news: Rise of the truth-seekers

The battle lines have been drawn.

On one side, the shots have already been fired, by purveyors of the bogus.

From false news stories during the French election to the Russian use of propaganda to meddle in the elections of other countries, fake news has become ever more pervasive and a challenge to governments and people, including Singapore.

On the rise now are the truth-seekers, who are helping people tell the real from the phony in the war of words. Their roles have never been more important, with online falsehoods being created and spread faster thanks to technology and social media.

The problem is more insidious than ever, and around the world the consequences of fake news are undermining the media and trust in government, and even putting some individuals in harm's way.

With fake news emerging on so many fronts, governments, media outlets, tech companies and civil society that are looking to fight the scourge are faced with an arduous task.

But they are finding new ways and coming together to deal with the problem, among them investing in fact-checking, ramping up literacy programmes, hitting the fabulists in the pocket and considering laws against false reports.

Amid these efforts, some groups, such as older keyboard warriors who may have acquired the tech skills but not the savvy, have emerged as a challenge for truth-seekers.

Following a two-day conference here last week on fake news, organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Insight looks at the latest developments in this war against falsehoods.

When virtual falsehoods lead to real-life consequences

One of the sessions at the two-day forum was Truth and Trust in the Digital Age: The Various Faces of Misinformation, featuring (from left) Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who was the moderator, and speakers Maria Ressa, Jason Subler and Eugen
One of the sessions at the two-day forum was Truth and Trust in the Digital Age: The Various Faces of Misinformation, featuring (from left) Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who was the moderator, and speakers Maria Ressa, Jason Subler and Eugene Tan. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

On Sept 2 last year, an explosion ripped through a night market in Davao, killing 15 people and wounding 70 more.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a nationwide "state of lawlessness" the next day, granting the military additional powers.

At the same time, an article from online news site Rappler, titled "Man with bomb nabbed at Davao checkpoint", was shared by several pro-Duterte Facebook pages, and quickly went viral.

The problem: The story was from March last year.

Its resurrection was a carefully orchestrated exercise in disinformation, said Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa, who was in Singapore last week for a forum on fake news.

Duterte supporters had used the story to dupe readers into believing that the President's move had helped to stave off yet another vicious attack.

When Rappler pointed out the article had nothing to do with the September bombing, pro-Duterte netizens and pages launched scathing attacks on the site and its staff in a bid to discredit and frighten them, said Ms Ressa, who herself had to fend off a barrage of death and rape threats.

This episode was among the examples given by speakers at a two-day forum, called Keep it Real: Truth and Trust in the Media, to illustrate how fake news has been used to mislead.


The consequences of fake news are serious, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in his opening address to the forum."It undermines the very fundamentals of a democratic society. It undermines the media. It undermines trust in government. It undermines what the truth is. It spreads fear and panic.

  • Bangladeshi editor 'went through hell' over unverified reports

  • A decade ago, Mr Mahfuz Anam, the editor of Bangladesh's leading English-language newspaper The Daily Star, caved in to demands to publish unsubstantiated reports against political rivals of the interim government.

    That lapse in judgment came back to haunt him last year, when he confessed on a talk show that he regretted publishing stories accusing the country's current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of corruption.

    These, he said, were based on unverified information from officials involved with the military-backed caretaker government that ruled Bangladesh between 2007 and 2008, who pressured him into running stories to further their agenda.

    Mr Anam, who was in Singapore for last week's forum, found himself facing more than 70 defamation and sedition cases in different courts all over Bangladesh.

    Most of them were filed by Ms Hasina's supporters from the ruling Awami League, accusing Mr Anam of publishing false and distorted information.

    Ms Hasina herself accused him of running "false news" in his paper, calling for him to step down.

    Mr Anam recalled: "I had to go through hell. Finally, it was the High Court that gave the stay order.

    "That's how I'm here today."

    He noted that most papers in Bangladesh had been cowed into peddling the same stories then, based on unchecked reports fed to them by the caretaker government.

    Mr Anam also highlighted how false information incited violence and raised communal tensions in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

    Muslim rioters mobbed Buddhist villages in Bangladesh five years ago, setting fire to homes and temples, and smashing Buddha statues.

    The violence was sparked by claims that a Buddhist youth had burned a Quran and uploaded a photo of it on Facebook.

    Police later said he had only been tagged in the photo. He had not destroyed a Quran himself, and was not the person who posted the picture.

    Mr Anam said: "This is a very serious concern of societies that are multiracial and multi-religious. We have serious concerns about the use of social media to create unrest."

"It undermines domestic politics and society as a whole. It de-legitimises leaders. It divides societies. It endangers lives."

Participants at the forum, which was organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and attended by news executives, technology experts and policymakers, were not short of examples of virtual falsehoods and their real-life consequences.

Mr Shanmugam highlighted some of the lies that emerged during the 2016 US presidential election - from Mrs Hillary Clinton selling weapons to terrorist group ISIS and running a paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, to claims that the Pope had endorsed Mr Donald Trump.

The election helped drive home the impact of misinformation, illustrating how it can bring mistrust into the whole process of democracy, he said.

Fake news has been a fixture in elections. French voters had a taste of it ahead of the presidential polls, from claims that Ms Marine Le Pen's father was growing marijuana on his estate to rumours of then-candidate Emmanuel Macron's secret offshore account.

Such falsehoods can upset the very concept of a free and open election. Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said: "Fake news strikes at the very heart of representative democracy, the whole idea of an informed electorate engaged in informed deliberations, in a keen contest of ideas."

Besides influencing opinions, misinformation can provoke real-life chaos, and even violence.

Mr Jason Subler, Reuters' managing editor for news strategy and operations, Asia, recalled how worried Chinese shoppers scrambled to buy salt after a health hoax went viral in 2011.

Text messages claimed that the fallout from a nuclear plant in Japan damaged by natural disaster would affect all of Asia, and that salt could stop radiation sickness.

"There was a Reuters photo of people essentially crawling over one another, the people in front wincing out of being squashed, in this mad dash to buy salt," said Mr Subler, who spent more than a decade as a reporter in China.

And in a world growing bitterly divided, fake news has also been used as a tool to stoke hatred by exploiting the prickly faultlines of race, religion and nationality.

For instance, false reports have fanned the flames of xenophobia, said Mr Shanmugam.

And, terrorists, too, are purveyors of online falsehoods, he added, pointing out how they use misinformation as a means to spread hate.


Mr Mahfuz Anam, editor of Bangladeshi paper The Daily Star, said lapses in the media have buoyed the rise of fake news.

"We've lost very vital links with our readers," he said. "We've pandered too much to the advertisers, became too close to the government in many instances, and the public started feeling we were not really upholding their interest."

Meanwhile, Mr Subler pointed to how the clampdown on the free press in China has created an atmosphere of distrust in the government and institutions like the press.

"People don't really believe what they're reading in the mainstream media, so they're even more prone to want to believe other things that people are spreading," he said.

And it is a vicious circle: Fake news has helped further chip away at this trust by attacking the credibility of traditional sources of information.

Ms Ressa pointed out that perpetrators seek to "cripple journalists" by branding the content they produce as biased or as outright lies.

Never has this been clearer that in the era of the Trump administration, putting out "alternative facts" of its own even as it decries media outlets it has clashed with.

Creating a "strong climate of trust" will be crucial in dampening the impact of fake news, said Mr Shanmugam.

Much is at stake. "If the distrust becomes deep-rooted, people will have serious doubts about institutions, about governance, and you then get a fractured polity," he said.

Weak spot in the battle - the elderly who spread the gossip

Less than a year ago, concerted efforts to spread fake news were a relatively unheard-of phenomenon.

But today, the problem has become so prevalent that a whole industry has sprung up to combat it.

From new laws to compel social media platforms to take down fake viral posts (see other report) to citizen groups combating online inaccuracies with Facebook comments and blogs of their own, the world is trying to find a solution to the scourge.

While the Government and tech companies have substantial power to stem the flow of fake news, increasingly, citizen groups and media outlets are stepping up to do their part.

However, one group of people in Singapore has left members of the local Media Literacy Council (MLC) scratching their heads on how to help them: the elderly.

This group may no longer be the digitally clueless caricatures of the past, with many owning smartphones and active on social media.

Yet many from this group, MLC head Lock Wai Han says, are guilty of propagating unverified information, such as political gossip or dubious health tips on social platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, with just a tap of a button.

Worse, their social media "shares" may not be addressed by those who know better, leaving such posts to be consumed by those who don't - propagating a vicious circle.

The Asian tendency to defer to one's elders, even if they are spreading wrong information, may be to blame here.

As frustrated university student Angela Teo, 21, put it: "No one wants to be the person who calls out your aunt about the gossip she's passing off as news in the family WhatsApp group."

Even if one is not bound by propriety, not every elderly person has a grandchild or child to point out the inaccuracies in his latest snippet.


Regardless of one's age, there are many reasons that fake news is so hard to stamp out.

At a conference organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers last week, one of the panels sought to discuss ways to empower citizens against fake news.

Ms Nejolla Korris, who heads InterVeritas International, which specialises in social-engineering awareness and lie-detection training, said it was important to get people who enjoy sharing fake news - perhaps for the sheer entertainment value - on the side of the truth.

But how? Straits Times associate opinion editor Lydia Lim told the forum that journalists ought to do more to get people to understand good media values like those practised in traditional media.

"We don't want to just be first with the news, but also fair and accurate," she said. "These are values that aren't discussed much, and our readers may not even be aware that that is how we do things."

For starters, media outlets can "train" their readers to be more questioning by reminding them of a few questions they should consider before they share anything they come across in social media.

These questions, Ms Lim said, include figuring out who's saying what, and why, and who stands to benefit from a particular piece of news. "It's the old dictum of 'following the money'," she said.

Indeed, news organisations are increasingly seeing the importance of educating their readers.

Earlier this year, the University of the Philippines launched an online educational television network to fight disinformation, some of which is said to come from the country's colourful President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Straits Times also announced last week that readers can send in queries about reports, photos or videos they find dubious to its AskST platform, which its journalists would then investigate, as part of the paper's efforts to educate people and counter fake news.

It may also feature reports debunking misinformation on health issues in its Mind & Body pages to help readers make sense of the many stories on healthcare products and practices they receive through social media.

Asia News Network, a regional media alliance comprising 22 newspapers, including The Straits Times, is also working on a checklist for journalists and readers to spot tell-tale signs of stories with dubious content. Among other things, it will also compile a list of known sites that regularly spread such false information.


Education continues on other fronts too.

French daily Le Monde launched an initiative earlier this year that sees its journalists volunteering at schools, teaching teenagers how to distinguish between real and fabricated news.

At the conference, Ms Anne Kruger, a journalism lecturer at Hong Kong University, suggested that media literacy classes be made mandatory so that children, who are exposed to online resources and social media at an increasingly young age, are armed with the skills to verify what is true or false.

At home, the MLC is working with the Info-communications and Media Development Authority of Singapore to roll out campaigns on media literacy in the heartland.

But the MLC's Mr Lock acknowledged that when it comes to the elderly, it takes patience: "We need to take things one step at a time."

MP Zaqy Mohamad, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Communications and Information, said one way to fight fake news put forward by older relatives is to take it offline.

"Do it at the dinner table. Raise the issue with humour, defuse it, correct the falsehood with the facts gently," he said.

"It's about building a culture where people aren't afraid to step in and say, 'Hey, the things you're sharing may cause panic, and here's why'."

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.

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.


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."


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, 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline Battle against fake news: Rise of the truth-seekers. Subscribe