Media firms propose independent fact-checking body

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.

The formation of an independent fact-checking body was proposed yesterday by media company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and broadcaster Channel NewsAsia (CNA) as a way to combat the problem of deliberate online falsehoods.

It should include media companies and industry practitioners, and other interested parties, said SPH, adding that it is open to working with other media organisations to form the alliance.

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

It added that for a piece of information to be identified as deliberate untruth, it must demonstrate intent to achieve special goals, like compromising national security.

The two companies gave the suggestions in their written submissions to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

At yesterday's hearing, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, a committee member, suggested to the companies' representatives that the Government can step in to address egregious falsehoods on such issues as national security or public health when the proposed fact-checking body cannot move fast enough.

Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH's English/Malay/ Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, agreed.

 
 
 

"But that does not preclude having a fact-checking body for other ends of that continuum," he said.

Mediacorp editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez added that it is premature to dismiss at this point in time the ability of this proposed body to move quickly against falsehoods in critical situations.

Mr Goh Sin Teck, editor of SPH's Lianhe Zaobao and Lianhe Wanbao Chinese newspapers, 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."

Mr Warren Fernandez noted the Edelman Trust Barometer had showed the conflation of mainstream media with social media has led to a decline in trust in the media in many countries. He noted that there had been a "constant drip feed" of "potshots and attacks" against the mainstream media by some online sites and bloggers. These appeared aimed at undermining the trust in the mainstream media, in an attempt to divert traffic and advertising to their sites.

For example, on occasions when SPH publications take time to verify and cross-check sources for an online news article, these sites may point to delays in putting out information as signs SPH is deliberately withholding information. In fact, there is no intention to do so at all, he said, adding: "Some of this may come from different standards that we hold when it comes to what is considered credible and reliable news."

He added that in his own experience, there has been "absolutely no transparency" when it comes to getting answers from social media companies on how their algorithms on ranking content are arrived at, or changed at their will.

Similarly, these companies might not be quick enough to act to take down deliberately false content unless the authorities had the powers to compel them to do so, just as it could with the local media.

"If (the authorities) have no powers to compel them to... it is not going to happen," he said.

Mr Walter Fernandez said it is "completely wrong" to think they cannot be regulated because they are "global, complex and powerful".

In fact, they can nip the problem of deliberate falsehoods in the bud quite effectively if they put their minds to it, he added.

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

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'Media firms propose independent fact-checking body'. Print Edition | Subscribe