Community leaders learn to deal with rush of fake news in emergency preparedness exercise

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary (standing, third from left) with attendees of a community emergency preparedness exercise on April 7, 2018.
Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary (standing, third from left) with attendees of a community emergency preparedness exercise on April 7, 2018.ST PHOTO: LIN ZHAOWEI

SINGAPORE - In the immediate aftermath of three simulated terror attacks, 150 community leaders had to stave off a rush of fake news, inaccurate information and anxiety-laden messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.

In a community emergency preparedness exercise on Saturday morning (April 7), the participants, from 24 wards in northern Singapore, had to deal with the fallout of three coordinated attacks: a shooting at a shopping centre in Punggol, a vehicle rampage in Yishun, and the bombing of a church in Jalan Kayu.

Amidst the chaos, they eased worries and redirected residents to verified channels like the Singapore Police Force and mainstream media outlets.

They also had to deal with mounting tensions between different races and religions, which manifested in the form of fist fights or rampant proselytizing by actors.

While such events organised by the Singapore Civil Defence Force under the SGSecure movement are common, this was the first time an exercise focused on fake news - a topic recently discussed by a select committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, who attended the event, advised participants to be sensitive to racial and religious faultlines, as a small neighbourly infraction or joke could turn ugly in times of stress.

"We need to go in there to defuse the situation and rebuild the bonds of friendship... but we can only do that if the bonds are there to begin with," he said.

Commander Eric Chua of the 3rd SCDF Division also warned the public that when in comes to fake news, "sharing is not always caring" and urged people to make checks before publishing something that could get out of control.

Many of the grassroots leaders found the exercise useful, since in an emergency, they would have to set up a similar channel of communication between residents and other authorities.

Mr David Ong, who chairs the Punggol West Citizens' Consultative Committee, said work is underway to ensure that such a system is in place. The committee has WhatsApp groups for about half of the 200 blocks in the area.

"If a terror attack happens, we will use these channels to address fake news and keep our residents calm," he said.