Independent, multi-stakeholder body needed to fight falsehoods: RSIS senior fellow

An independent body of non-government experts would help to provide necessary checks and balances required to tackle online falsehoods, said senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Benjamin Ang.

SINGAPORE - An independent body of non-government experts would help to provide necessary checks and balances required for Singapore to tackle online falsehoods and in a strategic manner.

Mr Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) suggested this to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods on Tuesday (March 27), noting that the body could help to identify if falsehoods are actually part of a larger information operation.

If the falsehoods are part of a broader campaign, a strategic rather than reactive response should be taken, said Mr Ang in his written submission to the Select Committee looking into measures against such disinformation.

This means that not every story should be taken down or rebutted immediately, he added.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, who is a member of the select committee, asked if it would be right to say that unlike in warfare or terror attacks, it "may or may not be in Singapore's strategic or diplomatic interest" to call out the state or non-state actor believed to have launched an information operation. To this, Mr Ang agreed.

Mr Ang also summed up the principles that should guide Singapore's response to falsehoods, and this includes building trust through transparent, continuous communication, and building media literacy.

In his submission, Mr Ang noted that falsehoods online, originating from state or non-state actors seeking to destabilise Singapore, amount to national security threats.

 

Such threats should be dealt with by the government, he told the committee.

Although necessary to "signal what society approves of", legislation may also create problems of perception and legitimacy, he said.

He said that this makes it important to have a judicial process to execute the law and an independent, multi-stakeholder body to review decisions.

Such stakeholders could include those from the public sector, private sector and civil society, and the group should not appear to be linked to or funded by the Government, in view of its legitimacy, he said.

If legislation is adopted, there should also be avenues for redress, as well as checks and balances in place, he told the committee.

However, there are limitations to the use of laws to counter disinformation.

Domestic laws "are often not the correct tools for responding to state level attacks", he argued in his submission.

This is because legislation that penalises or takes down online content can be circumvented and online falsehoods could be used as a "decoy" instead, for example, to build up a narrative that a Government is suppressing the truth.

By using laws to take down deliberate online falsehoods, a government may in fact have "played into the hands of the attacker", said Mr Ang.

Asked if this is a real concern should legislation be used to take down content, Mr Ang added: "If we're talking about a strategic campaign of disinformation... it would not just be the assumption of the public, but there would be a narrative to create a conspiracy theory around the removal of information."

Laws may also prove ineffective in arresting foreign or anonymous social media users, automated bots, or anyone else outside a particular jurisdiction, he said.

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