Primer: Q&A

Tackling the real issue of fake news

This is the second of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

Discussions on how to combat fake news have surfaced in Parliaments in different countries, including Singapore in the last two years, as widely spread falsehoods have resulted in very real consequences.

For instance, the lead-up to Brexit, the shock result of a 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, was seen to be rife with false claims from the "leave" camp, such as Britain sending the EU £350million (S$649 million) a week, or that Turkey would soon be admitted to the EU and many of its largely Muslim citizens would head to Britain. Last year, Britain started a probe into whether there had been Russian interference in the Brexit vote.

There has been concern too over whether fake news affected the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election, which was won by property tycoon Donald Trump.

Q What is "fake news"? Isn't it a contradictory term?

A Fake news is an oxymoron because it is seemingly contradictory. After all, news is generally defined as information or reports of recent or previously unknown events, which means it has to be true.

However, the term has now entered popular lexicon - to the extent that Collins Dictionary named "fake news" its word of the year for 2017, saying that it saw an "unprecedented usage increase" of 365 per cent since 2016.

It did not elaborate on what contributed to the uptick in usage. But media outlets such as The Guardian have observed that US President Trump has helped popularise the term, and it has been increasingly used by other world leaders as well.

Tertiary students working to come up with ideas to improve the fact-checking process at a fake news hackathon last year organised by the National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Google and the Media Literacy Co
Tertiary students working to come up with ideas to improve the fact-checking process at a fake news hackathon last year organised by the National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Google and the Media Literacy Council. The competition was held at the Google Asia-Pacific office in Pasir Panjang. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In a statement on its website, Collins defined fake news as "false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting".

Some academics and those who work in the media or related industries have pointed out that the use of the phrase "fake news" was problematic because it was imprecise.

The point was also raised during a two-day forum last June titled "Keep it Real: Truth and Trust in the Media", organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Former journalist Irene Jay Liu, who leads Google News Lab in the Asia-Pacific, said at the event: "I choose not to incorporate 'news' in discussing misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and satire... because this term doesn't have any meaning and it also defames journalism. It is not news - it is just incorrect information."

  • About The Big Quiz

    On Mondays, for 12 weeks from April 2 to Aug 6, this paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    These primers form part of the outreach of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, or The Big Quiz, which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.

    The primers will broach contemporary issues ranging from energy security to sustainability in food and water. They also include nurturing young talent in the arts, and an examination of how big data and analytics will affect the way people live and work in the future.

    Each primer topic will give a local perspective to help students draw links back to the issues' implications for Singaporeans.

    For the first time, The Big Quiz will go online, allowing all junior college students to take part in the current affairs competition over three online quiz rounds. Watch this space for more information on the online quiz rounds.

    The event is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education, with Singapore Press Holdings Foundation as its presenting sponsor.

Q Is the phenomenon new?

A No, neither the term nor the phenomenon is new.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary website noted that the term "fake news" dates back to the end of the 19th century, or late 1800s. As "fake" is a relatively new word and was little used as an adjective before the late 18th century, or late 1700s, "fake news" was preceded by the phrase "false news" which had appeared in writing earlier, as far back as the 1500s.

Even before that, falsehoods and inaccurate information that are deliberately or mistakenly spread - which are now characterised by the catch-all term fake news - have existed in human history.

Q So, why does everyone keep talking about it?

A What makes it different now is the ease and speed with which falsehoods or inaccurate information can be spread and amplified online.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers - published in the journal Science last month - found that false news was about 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted by people than true news.True stories also took about six times as long to reach 1,500 people than false stories did to reach the same number of people.

This was based on examining about 126,000 stories, which were shared 4.5 million times by about three million people on Twitter from 2006 to last year.

Q What are its consequences?

A Fake news has been used to refer to anything from sensational, click-bait articles and videos for advertising revenue to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns for political reasons.

Some forms are more insidious than others and some have a wider reach. Yet, reach, or more people encountering it, may not be equivalent to impact.

A paper published this January by three researchers from Princeton University, Dartmouth College and the University of Exeter, which was also reported about in The New York Times, found that false news may have a wide reach but not as much impact.

They came to the conclusions after analysing the Web traffic data gathered from a representative sample of 2,525 Americans who consented to have their online activity monitored anonymously.

While the researchers estimated that one in four Americans visited a fake news website from Oct 7 to Nov 14 in 2016, which were the weeks leading to, during and after the US presidential election, they noted that "fake news consumption was heavily concentrated among a small group" or 10 per cent of those studied. They described the echo chamber as "deep... but narrow".

But fake news has led to negative consequences such as raising alarm or wasting public resources.

One often-cited example is what is called the "Pizzagate" conspiracy: In the US, a rumour started in 2016 that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and one of her top advisers had used a pizza restaurant in Washington as a front for a paedophile ring.

In December that year, then 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, fuelled by his belief in the rumour, walked into Comet Ping Pong restaurant, which was packed with patrons, and fired off a round from his AR-15 rifle. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Last year, he was sentenced to four years' jail.

Following the incident, on the same day, the restaurant owner, Mr James Alefantis, said in a statement: "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences."

In Singapore, there is the Punggol Waterway Terraces hoax.

In November 2016, local website All Singapore Stuff published an article with the headline: "This just happened. The top floors of Punggol Waterway Terraces collapsed!"

An accompanying photo depicted what looked like a block of flats with the upper storeys having fallen in. Although the Singapore Civil Defence Force did not receive any calls for help at Waterway Terraces, it dispatched a fire engine and Red Rhino vehicle there.

The incident proved to be a hoax.

The Housing Board filed a police report over the issue.

The editors of All Singapore Stuff deleted the article and issued an apology. "We receive many contributions and news by ordinary Singaporeans and work with many editors," they added.

Q How are other countries dealing with it?

A Other countries are dealing with the problem in a number of ways, like through fact-checking initiatives, media literacy schemes and new laws. Here are some examples:

•In France, non-profit First Draft News last year launched CrossCheck, a collaborative journalism project across newsrooms. In the 10 weeks leading up to the May 2017 French presidential election, 37 newsrooms in France and Britain fact-checked and reported on false, misleading and confusing claims related to the election and candidates.

•In the US, the charity Newseum, which aims to increase understanding of the importance of a free press and the country's First Amendment - which protects free expression and religious freedom - has also been educating the public about fake news. Last year, Newseum, which is also a museum in Washington, launched a new exhibit examining the role of fake news in the 2016 presidential election. It has been running media literacy classes for students for about 20 years and, in March last year, it added Fighting Fake News classes.

•Germany passed a new law which kicked in from Jan 1 this year. The Network Enforcement Act, also called NetzDG, applies to social media platforms with two million or more users. These platforms can be fined €50 million (S$81 million) for each post that is deemed illegal and not removed within 24 hours of receiving a notification.

•Earlier this month, Malaysia's lawmakers approved an anti-fake news law.

Q What are the concerns about legislation?

A Some key concerns are that laws on fake news may stifle freedom of speech and expression, and governments may use these laws to intimidate or silence their critics.

Malaysia's approval of its new anti-fake news law came after two amendments were made in response to criticisms.

Revisions to the original draft of the Bill included redefining the crime to "maliciously" create fake news, instead of "knowingly" create fake news, and reducing the maximum jail term for the offence from 10 years to six years. The maximum fine remained unchanged at RM500,000 (S$170,000).

The timing of the Bill was controversial as it came ahead of a general election expected to be called within weeks, stoking fears from the opposition that the new law will be used to suppress dissent.

In Germany, lawmakers now want to add an amendment to NetzDG to help Web users get incorrectly deleted material restored online, in response to criticisms from free-speech advocates and the Association of German Journalists, Reuters reported last month.

The law's opponents had said that the threat of large fines was prompting Internet companies to overpolice and block more content than necessary. They cited, for example, Twitter blocking the account of satirical magazine Titanic after it tweeted a comment that was a parody of anti-Muslim comments in January.

Q What non-legislative measures does Singapore already have to combat falsehoods?

A Some initiatives by the Government or its agencies are already running.

Since 2012, the state-run Factually webpage (www.gov.sg/factually) has been clarifying what Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim referred to as "widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore's social fabric".

Some of its posts last month addressed the Government's approach towards national reserves, the airport development levy, and the increase in the foreign domestic worker levy.

Since 2013, the National Library Board has been running the Sure - which stands for Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate - campaign that teaches the public how to search for reliable sources of information and critically assess information.

It also houses related resources and tips on its webpage (www.nlb.gov.sg/sure/).

Among its outreach efforts is an annual Prove It! competition for secondary school students to testtheir information literacy skills.

Beyond those, schools teach inquiry as well as source-based analysis skills in subjects such as social studies.

Last year, the National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Google and the Media Literacy Council organised a hackathon competition to come up with ways to fight misinformation online.

Q What existing legislation does Singapore have that can deal with falsehoods?

A Singapore has a number of laws that have been previously invoked to deal with falsehoods.

These are some examples:

•Defamation Act: This allows individuals or organisations who believe their reputation has been harmed by falsehoods to take action against the source and to seek redress or damages.

•Sedition Act: This covers a number of situations, including a tendency "to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore".

•Telecommunications Act: Under this law, people who transmit a message known to be false or fabricated can be prosecuted.

During the recent Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods, some academics, content producers and civil society activists said that the current laws were sufficient to deal with the problem, while others said that the existing laws were limited in aspects such as speed, scope and adaptability.

Q What are the Select Committee hearings about?

A The committee was set up in January to look into how Singapore can tackle fake news. It invited the public to write in with their opinions and suggestions.

The committee received a record 170 written submissions and heard from 65 witnesses over eight days of public hearings last month.

Themes that emerged include how to define falsehoods and who will decide what counts as falsehoods, the effects of new laws on free speech, the role of technology and social media companies, and empowering the public through media literacy education and a Freedom of Information Act (a law under which citizens can request data from the Government).

Q What's next?

A The parliamentary committee looking into deliberate online falsehoods will resume its work on a report when Parliament reconvenes next month.

You can find out more here: www.parliament.gov.sg/sconlinefalsehoods

Click on the Public Hearings tab to read the written representations by witnesses and watch videos of them giving evidence.

Have a burning question related to this week's Primer topic?

E-mail us at askST@sph.com.sg For more information, go to www.straitstimes.com/askST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2018, with the headline 'Tackling the real issue of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe