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Helping citizens to keep it real online

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Intense debates arose during the public hearings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on whether new laws are needed to deal with a scourge that has been put on steroids by the online world. Despite the pervasiveness of fake news, activists maintain that existing legislation suffices because they fear overreaching laws might be abused. Others, however, pointed to the untrammelled power of giant tech firms who have contributed to the hyper speed at which fake news travels. Their lack of transparency over how they operate - from the algorithms that promote stories to the organisations that pay for content to be produced and played up - not to mention the shocking recent revelations about misuse of users' data, do not inspire confidence that relying on self-policing will produce results. Old remedies are insufficient for new ills; yet strong prescriptions might have unintended results, like curbing news reporting and fair comment. Striking the right balance for the nation is the challenge facing the committee.

A tactic of black propaganda operations of the past, fake news is being leveraged determinedly now for political purposes because the results are often spectacular, as witnessed during the 2016 American presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Here, half of those surveyed by Reach, a government feedback unit, identified WhatsApp and Facebook as the main sources of bogus news. This circulates widely because it evokes suspicion, fear and anger. The truth might sound bland in comparison, especially when presented in officialese and jargon, as well as when there is inordinate delay in fashioning a response. Not surprisingly, facts take about six times longer to reach people, according to one study.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2018, with the headline Helping citizens to keep it real online. Subscribe