Defeating just fake news would be a fake victory

Governments need to go beyond that and stop the decline of trusted sources of information

Fake news is in the news, but there is fake and there's FAKE!

This is the official fake: Fabricated stories done for financial gain or for some ulterior political purpose, such as to influence an election.

It is what many governments, including Singapore's, are concerned about and want to eradicate.

But there is also FAKE NEWS! which is now a favourite of some world leaders including US President Donald Trump and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Don't like anything?

Call it FAKE!

Here is one of Mr Trump's recent tweets: "We should have a contest as to which of the networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favourite President (me). Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY."

According to some reports, he has tweeted on FAKE NEWS! more than 100 times since taking office, targeting not just CNN but The New York Times, and even the BBC.

All this is bad news to those good people who are genuinely worried about the dangers posed by the proliferation of (official) fake news, and want to do something about it.

If you want to fight it, you have to make it black and white, and make sure people know how it is distinct from the truth.

But how to do so when there are so many interpretations of what it is, and where one man's fake is another's trusted source?

That's the first issue which will confront the newly appointed parliamentary Select Committee set up to study the matter and make its recommendations.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff at a House Intelligence Committee hearing last November on Russia's use of social media to influence the US election. Alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election was an example cited in the S
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff at a House Intelligence Committee hearing last November on Russia's use of social media to influence the US election. Alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election was an example cited in the Singapore Government's Green Paper on tackling fake news. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

It has powers to conduct public hearings, and anyone who has views on the matter, including those who support or oppose moves to introduce new measures, can make representations.

So, what is fake news?

 
 

According to the discussion paper (called a Green Paper) prepared ahead of the committee's deliberations, there are two types.

First, are fakes done for political purposes by political actors or organisations, including foreign states, to interfere in a country's affairs, such as influencing an election.

This is how the paper puts it: "The key objective of foreign states that spread online falsehoods will be to destabilise the target countries. They will seek to exploit existing fault lines within a society and heighten tensions. They will do this particularly during elections when emotions run high, making it easier to exploit and divide. They will also seek to sway the electoral outcome towards candidates whose policies are more favourable towards them."

Examples cited include alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election and last year's French election.

Second, are those done for financial gain: "These actors are often driven by profit. Every webpage we view, every link we click on from banners and advertisements, generates revenue… Individuals who want to earn more money generate content that attracts more viewers. Often, this is sensational and controversial content to entice a wider audience."

If the new law that is eventually introduced is limited to targeting people who manufacture and propagate these two types of fake news for political or financial gain, I think most people would not have a problem.

The issue then becomes how to make sure the laws keep faith with the intent to outlaw only these activities, and do not stray into other areas.

The latter point is important because of the concern among those who have spoken on this subject that any new action should not curtail legitimate discussions, especially dissenting voices.

More tricky is the question of what happens when you re-post or forward fake news to your friends - through WhatsApp, Facebook or e-mail.

Would you be guilty of breaking the law if it was subsequently found that the stuff you disseminated belonged to one of the two fake categories?

But if you had no idea that it was fake and believed it was true, how can you be guilty of anything when you send it on to your chat group?

Or are you expected to fact-check every piece of news you come across?

What about news websites and those that attract a sizeable following from their postings?

Would the new law require them to check news they host on their sites because, like the perpetrators of fake news, they too might benefit financially from the increased traffic?

Many of these sites also allow users to comment and post their views, including re-posting news.

How liable would they be?

These are issues the Select Committee will have to sort out.

I think what is important is to have the right approach and mindset.

Cyberspace is a wonderful place to encourage people to interact, to do business and to find common purpose in whatever interests them.

How to promote these legitimate activities and at the same time protect Singapore from the most malicious and destructive forms of fake news? That should be the committee's objective.

It is not to prevent fake news from being disseminated at all cost.

In fact, fake news isn't the most serious problem that has arisen as a result of the tremendous changes taking place in the digital and media world, and it is important to put it in context.

Far more damaging is what has happened to traditional media because its businesses have been completely upended by technology companies like Google, Facebook and YouTube.

These online giants have revolutionised the way people interact and communicate with one another, and the way they receive their news.

But they do so with an advertising-driven business model which sucks much of the revenue away from all other players, including mainstream media.

So even though many newspapers, including this one, have also gone digital, the leftover revenue they get cannot make up for the loss in their print business.

Unless they are able to find a new way to become financially viable, they face an uncertain future.

But newspapers also have to do a better job retaining their readers and winning new readership especially among the young.

Their steady decline over the years is the result not just of the new technology but their failure to remain relevant to people who now have many choices available.

You could also make the argument that fake news has proliferated because of traditional media's failure to confront the challenges of the digital world.

Fixing fake news will not make newspapers viable again, which requires more fundamental changes to the way they operate.

These are serious issues about the viability of professional journalism and its place in a free society.

I am not belittling the fake news problem - it can create serious damage and the issue needs to be addressed.

But the digital revolution that made fake news proliferate also created more serious problems in the media world that require urgent attention.

It would be a fake victory if governments succeed in tackling fake news but fail to stop the decline of trusted sources of information.

That would be akin to the man in a burning house trying to fix his Internet connection while the fire engulfs him.

Nothing fake about this possibility.


 •The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Defeating just fake news would be a fake victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe