Independent fact-checking council can combat deliberate online falsehoods: SPH and CNA

Singapore Press Holdings and Channel NewsAsia have suggested setting up an independent fact-checking body to combat the problem of deliberate online falsehoods on the fifth day of public hearing.

SINGAPORE - To combat the problem of deliberate online falsehoods, an independent fact-checking body could be set up, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Channel NewsAsia (CNA) have suggested to a parliamentary committee looking into the problem.

The fact-checking body should include media players and industry practitioners, and sit independently from government bodies and commercial entities, said SPH, adding it is open to joining such an alliance and working with other media organisations to set this up.

CNA said the mandate of such a body "must include identifying a DOF (deliberate online falsehood) and thereafter recommending appropriate remedial actions".

The two media companies made the suggestions in their written proposals to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods before their representatives appeared before the committee on Friday (March 23) at a public hearing.

SPH was represented by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of its English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, Mr Goh Sin Teck, editor of Lianhe Zaobao and Lianhe Wanbao, and Mr Mohamed Sa'at Abdul Rahman, editor of Berita Harian. CNA was represented by Mr Walter Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Mediacorp, and Mr Jaime Ho, chief editor of digital news at CNA.

In its written submission, SPH also raised concerns over whether potential legislation to tackle fake news may result in restrictions on free speech. For instance, media reports reflecting public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest, as is currently the case in some jurisdictions, it noted.

"Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law," said SPH.

 
 
 

Should there be a need for new or amended legislation, these should focus on the "relatively unregulated" sphere of online content distributors, rather than content producers, both offline and online, who are already subjected to laws such as the Sedition Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, and the Broadcasting Act, which automatically class-licenses Internet content providers, said SPH.

The proposed legislation should also consider how a distinction between "a deliberate intent to mislead and a difference in opinion or interpretation" can be drawn, and how a creator and distributor of a report that is labelled as fake news can address or appeal against such allegations, added SPH.

"Legislation that restricts the investigative and reporting power of the media would hit the wrong target, as newsrooms already have rigorous and effective mechanisms to check and counter falsehoods. It might also inadvertently curb the media's ability to fulfil its critical role in informing society, or to remain credible in the eyes of its readers," it added.

Taking this into account, the Select Committee can consider measures that will require online platforms such as Facebook, Facebook, Google, WeChat, WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter to take responsibility for the content they publish and promote, and operate on a level playing field with mainstream media organisations, said SPH.

They should be required to act faster when falsehoods spread on their platforms, and to disclose the identities of creators of deliberate falsehoods, SPH added.

Legislation may also compel social networks and media websites with a significant reach to create a monitoring or complaints mechanism that will allow them to be quickly alerted to fake, offending or prohibited content, added the media company. They should be required to remove such content within a "short but reasonable timeframe", and be subjected to an "impactful fine" for any failure to do so.

Said SPH: "Even when online platforms take steps towards self-regulation, they may not be able to rein in their users... Given that falsehoods can sometimes proliferate faster than they can be taken down, prevention - through increased media literacy and deterrence stemming from legislation - is better than any cure."

At the hearing, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, a committee member, suggested that the Government can step in to address egregious falsehoods  concerning national security or public health when the proposed fact-checking body cannot move  fast enough.
 
Mr Warren Fernandez agreed. “But that does not preclude having a fact-checking body for other ends of that continuum,” he said.
 
Mr Walter Fernandez added that  the ability of this body to move quickly to authorise action to address  falsehoods that may emerge in critical situations should not be completely dismissed. 
 
Mr  Goh said: “In times of emergency, it might be better to take down (an alleged falsehood), but there should be a process for a paper to go back to the independent body, to check if it is indeed fake news.”
 
While Mr Warren Fernandez said it will be helpful for the fact-checking body to retain its independence, both media companies agreed with Dr Janil that the Government should be part of this process, and the body should be accountable to Parliament. 
 
Separately, Mr Warren Fernandez noted the Edelman Trust Barometer had showed that the conflation of mainstream media with social media has led to a decline in trust in the media in many countries.
 
He pointed to a “drip feed” phenomenon where other sites have capitalised on this declining trust, and tried to undermine the mainstream media’s credibility in order to divert traffic and advertising to their sites.
 
For example, while SPH publications may be taking more time to verify and cross-check sources for an online news article, these sites may point to delays in putting out information as signs that SPH is deliberately withholding information.
 
In fact, there is no intention to do so at all, he said.
 
“Some of this may come from different standards that we hold when it comes to what is considered credible and reliable news,” he added.
 
CNA and SPH argued that technology companies should be held responsible for the content they distribute, given that consumers see them as an information source. Thus, additional legislation targeted at addressing the problem of falsehoods should ensure a “level playing field”.
 
Mr Warren Fernandez said in SPH’s own experience, there has been “absolutely no transparency” when it comes to getting answers from social media companies on how algorithms on ranking content are formed and changed. “If we have no powers to compel them to reveal (these algorithms), it’s not going to happen.”
 
And just as how media companies are currently required to take down content if they are found to be deliberate falsehoods, social media platforms, too, should be subject to the same rules.
 
Mr Walter Fernandez also said  the debate on the regulation of tech companies is “long overdue”. It is “completely wrong to think that they cannot be regulated because they are “global, complex and powerful”, he said. 
 
“If tech companies put their mind to it, not to mention the engineering strength they possess, I am convinced that they can deter (online falsehoods) quite effectively,” he said.
 

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.