Select Committee hearings on fake news

Spread of falsehoods in mother tongues a worry

NUS expert warns that such messages can amplify shared identity and are very relatable

Assistant Professor Mohamed Elmie Nekmat from NUS said the role of languages should not be disregarded in examining ways to counter falsehoods on the third day of public hearings on deliberate online falsehoods. VIDEO: GOV.SG

Falsehoods could be spread in mother tongue languages and dialects, and the potential impact of such messages should not be ignored, a National University of Singapore (NUS) communi-cations and new media expert has warned.

Appearing before the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods yesterday, Assistant Professor Elmie Nekmat noted that many discussions about disinformation have been conducted in English.

But some segments of society, such as the elderly, may be more comfortable in their mother tongues and less aware of the dangers of falsehoods, he said.

Also, messages in mother tongue languages could go viral on closed-group platforms such as WhatsApp chat groups, he added.

These messages tend to be "more closely relevant" to the communities they are shared in, and the use of a certain language amplifies the shared identity of the group as well, he added.

This is why there should be more efforts to examine the impact of disinformation in different languages, said Dr Elmie, one of six speakers yesterday and the first to speak in Malay in the first three days of public hearings by the committee.


Dr Elmie spoke mainly in English, but replied in Malay when Select Committee member Rahayu Mahzam, an MP for Jurong GRC, quizzed him about falsehoods in the Malay-Muslim community here.

He said: "The (Malay) language is almost always closely linked to religion, so people are more comfortable with it (the language) and because of that, the role of language is also very influential in falsehood dissemination."

He said the impact of Malay language messages originating from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia might be felt in Singapore as well.

Dr Elmie cited the case of an untrue viral allegation originating from Malaysia last year, about how shoe company Bata stocked footwear with the word "Allah" on the soles.

While the story started from a school in Malaysia, it eventually found its way here.

The NUS assistant professor in communications and new media said the potential spread of falsehoods via the Chinese language and dialects could be a concern too. "They are very relatable to a certain community, so when this language-based information is passed... you see more responses from the particular group that speaks that language."

In his written submission, he called for "more relevant forms of regulations, educational initiatives as well as greater research into the impact of deliberate falsehoods in a multiracial society".

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 17, 2018, with the headline 'Spread of falsehoods in mother tongues a worry'. Subscribe