The Straits Times says

Tackling bane of disinformation

News, by definition, is never fake. It is authentic when produced by professional journalists in established organisations who work against the clock to gather accurate and verified information, and to present it fairly, honestly and impartially. In dangerous places, they also do it fearlessly and pay a heavy price for telling the truth - like the 50 journalists who were killed last year. False information is not news, however hard it tries to look like the real thing, because it conforms to a very different process. No checks, no principles and no integrity are the trademarks of content that seeks to deliberately misinform and mislead people.

The potential of grave harm to society which false information and hate speech can cause has spurred calls for laws to curb this scourge. In Germany, social media giants face fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million) if they do not expunge offensive posts promptly. These have multiplied because of social tensions created by the presence of one million asylum seekers. Here, it's an offence under the Telecommunications Act to knowingly send a false message, for example, that a bomb is set to go off in a place. The Government is reviewing if further measures are needed against malicious misinformation, especially when it could cause panic and lead to physical harm. Child-kidnapping scares at malls have surfaced here but more sinister is the widespread damage that foreign players can wreak. Russia, for example, has admitted that it is building up information-warfare troops.

While there is no doubt the fiery and the fake can cause considerable harm, care is needed when deciding how best to outlaw excesses. First, there is so much of it that one cannot possibly run them all to ground. Further, some might have limited impact or relate to trivial concerns. Second, crossing a red line could be contentious when the line is blurred. Outright and wholesale fabrication is clear-cut. But disinformation could be intermingled with what's plausible, a mischievous spin might be given to data, coverage could be calculatedly tilted, selected facts might be distorted insidiously, and falsehoods passed off as views.

Hence, there is concern that laws framed too widely might prove "a setback for mainstream and citizen journalism", as a commentator noted. How finely must organisations filter comments, and what if information from seemingly reliable sources proves to be less than accurate over time? In pinpointing harm, laws must target malicious intent and reckless behaviour. And search engines must not proliferate proven fabrications. The limited response of Google is to place "fact check" tags on some search results, and Facebook will use some fact checkers to monitor news. Ultimately, what will matter more is the news literacy of the public - the ability to question dubious claims and sources and to not let these go viral.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'Tackling bane of disinformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe