The Straits Times says

Upholding truth and trust in news

Many would agree the consequences of disinformation, misinformation and hate speech can be disastrous for communities and nations. Such devices are capable of provoking widespread public alarm, street violence and civilisational wars. They can lead to misguided choices made at the polls or give a foreign power a strategic advantage. Hence it would be folly to do nothing to curb this viral menace, given the speed at which blatant lies and worked-up passions can travel.

Just what steps should be taken to safeguard societies, however, is a matter of considerable debate. A heavy-handed approach might curb the freedom of expression. At the other end of the scale, token measures will have no deterrent effect. In an ideal world, the giants of the digital world would practise a code of conduct to expunge extreme content within hours of a legitimate complaint. And people would be critical about dubious claims and not rush to pass it on to others. But being imperfect, the world is seeing "fake news" proliferating like a cancer instead.

Germany and Britain are among the nations looking at legal measures to tackle this problem. Singapore too is preparing to introduce laws next year to rein in excesses. Admittedly, whatever rules are emplaced will apply only within a country's borders. But if the outcomes are favourable, such initiatives might spur more countries to take action.

If drafted crudely, disinformation laws might be circumscribed by the courts or be rejected by the community for being overly restrictive. Blunt provisions might suppress whistle-blowing to expose wrong-doing, and put the lid on the responsible reporting of circumstantial evidence. These are useful in drawing out further information and spurring investigation. When the truth is not black and white or is convoluted, false-news laws might make sources clam up. Then, some matters could take months or years to come to light, if at all. Further, when opinions are construed as false facts, legislation could have the unintended effect of suppressing viewpoints.

Thus, the law must be clear about its target. The aim could be to get the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the test of falsehood in cyberspace is content that breaks existing laws, private companies will have to judge the truth and the legality of posts which Facebook insists is unreasonable. It's true the volume of digital content to be monitored is huge. But a hands-off approach would turn the Internet into a sanctuary for insurgents, criminals and cranks. Fact-checkers must be part of a media ecosystem that builds rather than destroys trust in legitimate news sources. Whether it is to delete or tag extreme content, or to provide verified data to counter falsehoods, all must act speedily to counter the corrosive effects of false news.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Upholding truth and trust in news'. Print Edition | Subscribe