Proposed fake news law

Giving the lie to the 'marketplace of ideas'

People can't be bothered to call out lies. The law is needed to aid the process of sieving out falsehoods online.

As a Member of Parliament (Marine Parade GRC), I spoke at the recent parliamentary debate on deliberate online falsehoods (popularly known as fake news) and would like to share the key points that I made. I also welcome readers and members of the public to contribute their views and suggestions so that the Select Committee, of which I am a member, can take them on board when we meet.

Any discussion of fake news should take bearing from the relatively uncontroversial principles that we should, first, reduce falsehoods as much as we can and, second, promote the truth as vigorously as we can.

As with so much in policymaking, this is easier said than done.

A June 2017 survey by the Ministry of Communications and Information found that around 25 per cent of respondents shared information they later discovered to be false; around two-thirds could not recognise fake news when they first saw it; and only half were confident of their ability to recognise fake news.

Clearly, we need more processes to safeguard the two principles of reducing falsehoods and promoting truth. New processes are needed because the status quo is based on two assumptions which we now know to be questionable.

QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTIONS

 •Enough time and capacity to call out lies

First, the assumption of infinite, or even adequate, time and capacity to process information. Some critics of legislation to tackle fake news argue that restricting information, even false information, infantilises the population. They may think "here the state goes again - mollycoddling citizens by restricting information for our sakes".

The allegation that FairPrice sells "halal pork" has been making the rounds since 2007 and persists to this day, despite being shown to be false. Falsehoods do not wither and die when exposed to the light of truth, says the writer, adding that giving
The allegation that FairPrice sells "halal pork" has been making the rounds since 2007 and persists to this day, despite being shown to be false. Falsehoods do not wither and die when exposed to the light of truth, says the writer, adding that giving people the facts may not cause them to change their minds, as they may choose to disregard the facts or find new facts to support their ideas. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Indeed, the argument from freedom goes further - "Even if we do make mistakes, it is our mistake to make. The Government should not - and should not want to - protect us from our mistakes."

That is true.

But, it is also true that people have a right to expect the political leaders they have put in place to have a duty of care to ensure that the decision-making environment is not populated by intentional falsehoods.

Just throwing all the "data" we have into a pot and then leaving people to distinguish between good and bad information assumes that people have both the time and capacity to do this. I don't mean "capacity" in the strict sense of expertise or education - I mean it in the loose sense of "inclination" or whether we "can be bothered". Indeed, most people cannot be bothered.

As the chief executive of NTUC FairPrice, a supermarket chain, I know that first-hand, as FairPrice has been hit by fake news - if you believe what you see online, FairPrice sells "halal pork" and "plastic rice".

In 2007, FairPrice filed a police report after we found a picture of "halal pork", allegedly sold by stores, on the Internet. If the first person who saw this checked with us and deleted it, it would have died there. Instead, the news was carried in both mainstream media as well as online news media, and caused a stir in the community. It was so widespread that Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) had to carry out physical checks. It went viral again in 2011 and again in 2014. Even today, 10 years later, I still get messages asking me about this. For the last time (I hope), this is a deliberate online falsehood!

Just last year, FairPrice also had to file a police report over viral claims that its house brand jasmine fragrant rice is made of plastic. Last year, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority also had to come out to debunk a Facebook video that alleged a coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio was selling "man-made eggs from China".

The consequences of fake news go beyond dollars and cents to the very destiny of nations. In the United Kingdom, some voters for Remain or Leave voted on the basis of information later found to be false.

 • Lies can be exposed by light

Some other critics of proposed laws targeting fake news argue that a government does not have a right to decide beforehand what is true and what is false. They say that people have a right to all the facts, and to make up their own minds.

This is the argument from the "marketplace of ideas" - that people will change their minds when the facts change. As Cicero, the great Roman orator, said: "Does not, as fire dropped upon water is immediately extinguished and cooled, so, does not, I say, a false accusation, when brought in contact with a most pure and holy life, instantly fall and become extinguished?" Cicero, I think, did not have experience with "halal pork".

The answer to his question - whether falsehoods wither and die when exposed to the light of truth - is, of course, no! Lies thrive and contest against the truth, even when the "truth" is as evident as where a man - or president - was born.

Instead of changing their minds when presented with a different set of facts, people may choose to disregard these facts or find ways to find new facts that support their pre-existing ideas. This confirmation bias is well tested and should be taken into consideration when we make the marketplace argument.

The extent of government involvement in sieving out online lies that can harm Singapore requires deep discussion.

One might think that this is about the need to balance our freedoms with duties, but I ought to make it clearer than that. It is not just a balance, but a difference between means and ends.

In Singapore, we do not pursue freedom for its own end. We do not, if I may put it bluntly, have a "philosophy of freedoms".

As Mr S. Rajaratnam, our then Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in a speech to foreign correspondents: "We see freedom of the press not as the end, but as means to an all-embracing end - the integrity and independence of our country, its security, its prosperity, the eradication of anything that would sow seeds of social, racial and religious conflicts which is the rule rather than the exception in the world today."

He was speaking in 1986, more than 30 years ago, and the world has come full circle. Today, even more so than in the past, Singapore is vulnerable to misinformation. Lies and fake news campaigns can rampage through our small, highly e-connected society within minutes. It is naive, given human psychology, inertia and cognitive biases, to think that the marketplace of ideas will allow the truth to prevail.

Indeed, these days, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed.


 •The writer, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, is a member of the Select Committee formed to study deliberate online falsehoods, chaired by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong.


 •This article is adapted from his speech in Parliament last week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline 'Giving the lie to the 'marketplace of ideas''. Print Edition | Subscribe