The Select Committee set up to look into ways Singapore can tackle online fake news has invited the public to submit its views and suggestions on the matter. This move represents an important opportunity for Singaporeans to make their voices heard on an issue that affects them. At the end of the day, they will be the main victims if fake news destabilises the political system, shakes markets and sparks riots. They will also lose if excessive controls inhibit the growth of legitimate news and fair commentary. Hence the need for a measured approach. Governments are faced with the challenge of striking a balance between public access to information, and ensuring that fake news does not infiltrate a space of communication that is crucial to the proper functioning of State, market and society. The stakes are high.
Complicating the issue is the controversy created by governments cracking down on news outlets that allegedly purvey fake news. For example, the Philippines government has found itself embroiled in a dispute with Rappler. The news website has been called a "fake news outlet" but it has responded angrily to the claim. Rappler's reporting has included allegations that President Rodrigo Duterte's government has "weaponised" social media, using them to discredit his most vocal detractors. His office rejects that charge. More spectacularly, American President Donald Trump's decision to bestow "Fake News Awards" was criticised by a senator from his own Republican Party, who declared: "When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that does not suit him 'fake news', it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press." Crying wolf over fake news has the effect of diluting if not destroying the credibility of official rebuttals when such news really arrives.
While such controversies do not occur in Singapore, it is important that the lines against fake news be drawn clearly enough to differentiate it from the necessary flow of information that equips people to act responsibly as citizens. This is where the Singapore public must speak its mind so that the committee can incorporate a diversity of views into its deliberations and convey a sense of the public mood in its recommendations to the House. Parliamentarians have made a range of suggestions on tackling deliberate online falsehoods, from imposing fines on online platforms that do not take down fake content, to using university students as independent fact checkers.
The goal of such efforts - upholding the integrity of information - is a commendable one. Singapore must never find itself in the sorry state of becoming a society where fake news elbows out credible information by being deliberately salacious or malicious or both. News is critical to the health of the body politic. Fake news is a cancer that can grow uncontrollably if not cut out.