Keep eyes open for fake news

An employee uses a laptop decorated with a 'Cyber' sticker inside the fact-checking newsroom of Correctiv, a nonprofit investigative organisation, in Berlin, Germany, on Aug 23, 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Eyebrows were raised earlier this week when an Australian magazine for teachers reported that Singapore's director-general of education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, had made remarks that were critical of his own ministry.

The article in Australian Teacher Magazine, which is distributed to schools in every Australian state, said Mr Wong had attributed Singapore's success in academic rankings to a "culture of compliance", and had said at a conference: "We've been winning the wrong race."

Local news sites such as Mothership.sg later reproduced the quotes from the widely shared article.

As it turned out, Mr Wong did not make the remarks attributed to him, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) said the article was "fake news".

After MOE posted a full transcript and video recording of Mr Wong's speech, the magazine withdrew the article.

To this day, writer Walter Barbieri has not fully explained how he came to attribute the remarks to Mr Wong.

The episode underscores the need for media outlets to verify their sources to avoid spreading falsehoods, and for readers to examine what they read with a critical eye. This is even more pertinent now that articles can be easily shared on social media and can go around the world.

Even if a story is taken down, the misinformation may still be floating somewhere in cyberspace.

Fake news, which came under the spotlight during the United States presidential election last year, is a growing problem that media outlets and governments have to grapple with. Earlier this week, Facebook said pages on its platform that post hoax stories will be banned from advertising on the social networks.

Singapore is likely to introduce legislation to tackle fake news next year. But the best way to counter fake news is for readers to hold media outlets accountable and demand that they verify their news sources.

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'Keep eyes open for fake news'. Subscribe