Why It Matters

Scaling up war on fake news

With all 80 MPs present voting "yes" on Wednesday to form a Select Committee that looks into the threat of online falsehoods, Parliament sent a resounding signal that the growing fake news problem is one that merits close inspection.

The committee, helmed by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, was named yesterday morning.

This committee will now have to recommend possible countermeasures against fake news and disinformation campaigns, in accordance with its broadly worded terms of reference.

Mr Chong said there was a consensus from the debate that there was a need to "say 'yes' to alternative views, but not alternative facts".

Although there is no stipulated timeline for the committee to complete its deliberations, Mr Chong noted the urgent nature of its work.

This includes deciding whether the Government should enact any legislation - even as several MPs cautioned against regulating with too heavy a hand.

One of the committee's first tasks is to consider the need for further studies on how falsehoods shape Singaporeans' world views, suggested Nee Soon GRC MP Henry Kwek. Two in three Singaporeans were not able to recognise falsehoods, according to a government poll last May. But the poll did not address what happens if an authoritative source were to point out the falsehoods to them.

A longitudinal study in the United States, hailed by The New York Times last week for producing the "first hard data" available on the subject, concluded that fake news had a wide reach, but little impact.

Carrying out such a study here will take time - from half a year for a simple survey to several years for a more comprehensive study, said communications and new media expert Elmie Nekmat.

To achieve greater clarity on the issue, the committee should take the time it needs to carry out studies and collect feedback. This will help it achieve the right balance between maintaining a healthy discourse and instituting appropriate interventions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Scaling up war on fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe