MPs' suggestions

Fines, fact-checkers, education among ideas to fight scourge

The burst of ideas by Members of Parliament on ways to tackle the growing scourge of deliberate falsehoods posted online came after a move by Law Minister K. Shanmugam to get parliamentary permission to assemble a Select Committee to analyse the issu
The burst of ideas by Members of Parliament on ways to tackle the growing scourge of deliberate falsehoods posted online came after a move by Law Minister K. Shanmugam to get parliamentary permission to assemble a Select Committee to analyse the issues and produce recommendations on lines of action.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

A slew of suggestions were given by Members of Parliament yesterday on ways to tackle, if not terminate, the growing scourge of deliberate falsehoods posted online.

These include imposing fines on websites that do not remove fake content, using university students as independent fact-checkers and introducing critical thinking in schools' curriculum to develop a generation with a "healthy scepticism of online information".

The burst of ideas came after a move by Law Minister K. Shanmugam to get parliamentary permission to assemble a Select Committee, comprising 10 MPs, to analyse the issues and produce recommendations on lines of action.

One very likely measure is legislation. It is among the proposals in a recent government document called the Green Paper, which sets out the possible courses of action, including policy measures. The paper also gave actions taken by other countries.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) suggested that the Government examine laws that countries such as Germany and New Zealand have enacted to take down false content.

Germany's law against hate speech, known as NetzDG, allows its government to order sites to remove such unlawful content. Systemic breaches can result in fines of up to €50 million (S$80 million).

"The European Union, UK and France are considering similar take-down laws," said Mr Zaqy, who was among 13 members of the House to speak on the motion.

New Zealand takes a different approach. Its Harmful Digital Communications Act allows the courts to order a right of reply, or to correct false statements about individuals, he added.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) suggested that the Select Committee discuss the responsibilities of social media and tech companies, as well as educating people to discern what is fake news.

Some, like Nominated MP (NMP) Kok Heng Leun, suggested multiple independent fact-checking bodies.

Mr Kok said: "As the world becomes more complex, no one person or institution can claim to have all information, everyone contributes in discovering (what is true)."

NMP Mahdev Mohan called for a network of fact-checkers to be formed to correct and report misinformation on social media.

He also suggested that the Government could block the ads of websites "to reduce or eliminate the financial incentives to generate fake news traffic".

"These networks can be state-driven, such as the Government-owned website Factually, or ground-up efforts such as the United States' International Fact-Checking Network, or FactCheck.org," he added.

NMP Ganesh Rajaram urged the Government to consider marshaling social media influencers to get the word out swiftly when a piece of news is fake.

"While we all know that our very own Prime Minister is one of the biggest social media influencers in Singapore because of his number of followers, there are others who also have a wide reach," he said.

Stressing the importance of immediately correcting fake news that could trigger nationwide panic, Mr Ganesh said mainstream media can lead the charge.

On education efforts, nearly all the MPs argued for media literacy and critical thinking to be part and parcel of the school curriculum.

NMP K. Thanaletchimi said students can learn to spot cues to uncover misinformation and question misleading sources, instead of simply believing anything they read.

"Eventually, we hope to culti-vate a generation with a healthy scepticism of online information," she added.

Mr Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC) suggested the committee commission "detailed and prolonged studies" to understand how Singaporeans consume news and how social media shape their understanding.

Mr Kwek said: "A clear understanding of news consumption patterns will be necessary to help us calibrate policy, so that we can balance a healthy discourse with necessary intervention."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'Fines, fact-checkers, education among ideas to fight scourge'. Print Edition | Subscribe