Fight against online falsehoods must take place offline too, say experts

There must be some active human agency involved together with any online counter-measures, said Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Thursday (March 15) at the second hearing on deliberate online falsehoods. VIDEO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - The battle against misinformation calls for active human intervention, said experts at a hearing on deliberate online falsehoods, stressing that efforts to thwart this scourge should take place offline as well as online.

Such efforts can take the form of dialogues and efforts to educate people from a young age to identify falsehoods, they said, adding that civil society, grassroots organisations and the media all have a role in the fight against fake news.

On Thursday (March 15), the experts from Singapore and abroad discussed examples of misinformation campaigns from the United States, France to Latvia, on the second day of public hearings by a parliamentary committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

Terrorism analyst Shashi Jayakumar drew parallels between misinformation and terrorism, noting how supporters of militant group ISIS seek out people online who share their points of view.

Similarly, echo chambers have made fake news an insidious global problem, said the academic from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a committee member, said disinformation can cause people to doubt what is real and fake, driving them to stick with groups that reinforce their beliefs.

Dr Shashi said this means open, face-to-face dialogue where a diversity of opinions can be aired will be crucial. In the case of violent extremism, people have been radicalised by radical ideology on the Internet but he said he has yet to come across a case of someone who was wholly deradicalised online.

 
 
 
 

"There must be some active human agency involved together with any online counter-measures," he said.

This applies to the fight against fake news too, he said, noting how the 2013 Our Singapore Conversation series to engage Singaporeans on a variety of issues had brought together people with diverse opinions. Such exchanges could help dispel online myths, he said.

Some of this dialogue is already happening on the grassroots level, but more can be done, said Dr Shashi.

"I'm not trying to be critical of any effort by any government agency but sometimes for some of these grassroots events, or events hosted by the RCs (Residents' Committees), it may be the same type of people who turn up," he said. "I wonder if there is a way to go to go a little bit further into that."

The media, such as The Straits Times, can play a part in debunking fake news, said Dr Shashi, adding that in some countries, major networks and sites at times engage national newspapers for help with fact-checking.

In his written submission to the committee, Dr Shashi suggested exploring ways to support papers like The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao "in a nuanced and calibrated fashion, such that they can once again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources".

Mr Shanmugam, noting that the circulation of the two papers is holding steady, said while society needs good, trusted newspapers, this will not be the silver bullet.

"It's got to be one of a series of solutions," he said. "If you have a good newspaper, that alone is not going to help. You have other things to do too."

Dr Shashi also said that people should be prepared from a young age for the fight against fake news. Noting that the Israeli way is to "train, train and rehearse", he said young people could be trained to respond to the spread of such falsehoods and the fallout that may ensue.

Other countries are already working to inoculate their young.

At the hearing, Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, founder of Ukrainian fact-checking site StopFake.org, cited a project launched a month ago with the Ukrainian education ministry to teach critical thinking and help students discern between facts and falsehoods.

Meanwhile, Prague-based European Values Think-Tank representative Jakub Janda, who also runs the Kremlin Watch Program that monitors Russian media, said civil society has a crucial role to play in the fight against fake news.

He suggested setting up non-governmental organisations with legal expertise to watch the media space and identify vulnerabilities as well as potential hostile actors.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here