Select Committee on fake news: Calibrated approach can allay fear of curbs on free speech

On concerns that laws against fake news would affect critical thinking, the committee said some saw legal action as complementary to media literacy education.
On concerns that laws against fake news would affect critical thinking, the committee said some saw legal action as complementary to media literacy education.PHOTO: ST FILE

A calibrated approach can be adopted to address concerns that overly broad measures to tackle online falsehoods may curtail free speech, said a Select Committee set up to look into fake news.

The committee had also considered if the freedom of speech protects falsehoods, whether legal action would have a "chilling effect" on speech and whether legal action would undermine critical thinking.

"No representor gave any convincing reason why falsehoods should be protected by the right to freedom of speech," the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods said in a 176-page report released yesterday.

The committee said it found arguments on why online falsehoods harm democracy and are not worthy of protection useful. These falsehoods hurt democracy as they crowd out reliable news and divert attention from substantive issues, among other things.

"Online falsehoods harm democracy and the genuine contestation of ideas in the 'marketplace'; the latter is what the freedom of speech serves to protect," it added.

As for whether laws against online falsehoods would have a chilling effect, it noted that social news website Mothership testified that it did not see a drop in traffic, or engagement on its platform, as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime.

"The prospect of a 'chilling effect' should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all," the report said.

On concerns that laws against fake news would affect critical thinking, the committee said some saw legal action as complementary to media literacy education.


Select Committee chairman Charles Chong (centre) and members (from left) Seah Kian Peng, Chia Yong Yong, Edwin Tong, Desmond Lee, K. Shanmugam, Janil Puthucheary, Pritam Singh, Sun Xueling and Rahayu Mahzam at a press conference yesterday. The committee, which released a 176-page report yesterday, said “no representor gave any convincing reason why falsehoods should be protected by the right to freedom of speech”. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

At a press conference yesterday on the committee's report, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also addressed concerns about free speech, saying the committee had discussed extensively the balance between what is private and what has public impact.

While some members, like himself, were very concerned about the impact of falsehoods on public institutions, others such as Mr Pritam Singh raised the need to strike a balance between dealing with that and personal messages that do not have a public impact, said Mr Shanmugam, a committee member.

 
 
 
 

"If you are sending a message to somebody... who doesn't have a wider circulation, and it is a purely private message about your family, then we should be careful about intervening in that," he added.

Mr Singh, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said one theme which runs through the committee's report is the need for a "multidimensional response" to falsehoods. This includes public education, strengthening trust between people and communities, and supporting quality journalism.

"I think it is very hard to disagree with the forward-looking and progressive nature of some of these recommendations," said the Workers' Party MP.

He said the measures proposed ought to be calibrated, and it is not one response for any online falsehood.

This is to distinguish between the harm that a potential falsehood or deliberate online falsehood will cause, and something said by a misinformed individual, he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2018, with the headline 'Calibrated approach can allay fear of curbs on free speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe