Measures against falsehoods should target only those aimed at undermining society: RSIS senior fellow

Dr Norman Vasu said that the creators of disinformation should be the ones taken to task.
Dr Norman Vasu said that the creators of disinformation should be the ones taken to task.PHOTO: GOV.SG
Any government measures should target those who created the falsehoods, said Dr Norman Vasu, a senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

SINGAPORE - Any response to online falsehoods should target only those that are deliberately spread to undermine society, said a senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, as these posed the greatest threat to society.

A second principle to consider, said Dr Norman Vasu, is that countermeasures "will not reasonably be expected to stifle the frank and healthy exchange of opinion and ideas required for a functioning democracy".

The creators of disinformation should be the ones taken to task, as people passing them on may do so unwittingly, he told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods on Wednesday (March 28).

When committee member Chia Yong Yong asked if this means someone transmitting racially inflammatory information need not be held accountable, Dr Vasu disagreed, noting that it is important to consider the intention. Someone passing on racially incendiary falsehoods in Singapore's context likely has an intention to stir up racial tensions, he added.

In his written submission, Dr Vasu outlined six categories of online falsehoods based on the degree of threat they pose. Top of the list is disinformation aimed at undermining society, while parody is at the bottom.

Other falsehoods, ranked according to levels of severity, are those spread for financial gain, sloppy journalism, relativisation of facts for political purposes and differing interpretations of facts as a result of ideological bias.

Dr Vasu said responses should target solely falsehoods created to undermine the state and untruths spread for financial gain as this could also undermine elections and sow discord.

In other cases, measures are already in place to correct wrong information, such as those arising from sloppy journalism, he added.

Dr Vasu noted too that differing interpretations of facts and parodies are "part and parcel of the fourth estate", suggesting they need not attract state intervention either.

The relativisation of facts for political purposes should be left alone as well because it is a part of political hustings, he said.

Asked by Select Committee member Pritam Singh about this assessment, Dr Vasu noted how, in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum - the British exit from the European Union - the group pushing for an exit claimed on a campaign bus that money given to the EU could be spent on public services instead. But the claim that Britain "sends" £350 million a week to the EU was later debunked.

"It's quite common to have different views on the information that you are receiving," said Dr Vasu. "Beyond just proving them wrong, I don't see what can be done about it."

In his submission, Dr Vasu stressed that the flow of information should be protected by guarding free speech.

He said: "The danger of subjecting information to the vetting of a select few tasked with deciding whether it is true or false cannot be overstated."

Dr Vasu proposed some countermeasures - from legislation to promoting media literacy - but also laid out the limitations of each measure.

For example, laws often fail to keep pace with technological development and can be challenging to amend, he cautioned.

One should also be wary of how much regulation should be left to private enterprises, he said, as they may not be able to determine what is false, nor have the public good at heart.

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