Experts welcome laws to curb fake news

They warn that fake news will get harder to spot, point to its insidious effects on people

Besides calling for new laws, digital management consultant Ryan Lim (left) and Latvian academic Janis Berzins said commercial entities must cooperate with governments to clamp down on fake news. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Fake Facebook accounts of at least 13 People's Action Party MPs surfaced in a matter of days last month, but were shut down by the social media company before anything sinister could take place.

However, two experts who track the issue of fake news warn that such accounts and news will not only increase but could also become harder to spot. That is why they welcome the Government's announcement that it is looking into how to deal with the problem.

Besides calling for new laws, Latvian academic Janis Berzins and digital management consultant Ryan Lim said commercial entities - such as smartphone companies and social media platforms - must cooperate with governments to clamp down on fake news.

The two men took part in a closed-door dialogue last week with Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on building resilience in a post-truth era, which was organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Fake news reports have already been flagged for influencing Britain's referendum to leave the European Union and the American presidential election last year.

Mr Lim, QED Consulting's founding partner, said those who spread fake news will use more sophisticated methods that may confuse even the most cyber-savvy.

He and Dr Berzins are concerned about the subtle but insidious effects fake news has on a population's psyche and their trust in major institutions like the government. For example, in Germany, there were false claims of a German girl being raped last year by asylum seekers - reports that appear to target Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy for refugees.

Dr Berzins, director of the Centre for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defence Academy of Latvia, said his country is facing an onslaught of "systemic disinformation" from Russian sources.

"All the rhetoric stays in the minds of the people," he noted.

He warns that fake news is the new frontier of military operations. He said: "The best army is the one that wins without going to the fight.

"So you spread misinformation, dilute nationalist sentiments, debase the trust of the citizens - whatever it takes to break the social contract between people."

Laws are needed to halt the spread of such falsehoods, he said, citing a landmark Bill by German legislators which, if passed, will compel social media outlets to quickly remove fake news which incite hate or face fines of up to €50 million (S$74 million).

German officials had provided data showing that Facebook "rapidly deleted" just 39 per cent of the criminal content it was notified about, while Twitter acted quickly to delete only 1 per cent of posts cited in user complaints. "Corporates and governments aren't on the best of terms," he said. "The intention isn't to apply the fine, but to convince these guys to react faster."

Another way governments could combat fake news more effectively is by collaborating with friendly states. Mr Lim suggests friendly nations form some sort of compact to take action against those residing in one country but disseminating fake news about another.

He cited the States Times Review - a sociopolitical site founded by Mr Alex Tan Zhixiang, who operates outside of Singapore. Among other things, the site had suggested that the late S R Nathan was an unpopular president by claiming that there was near-zero turnout during his state funeral last year.

"The cyber world has no borders, so we need to work together to bring people to task," Mr Lim said.

While both experts would like to see more government action against fake news, they also said it is critical that people exercise a large degree of personal responsibility over what they read and share.

Dr Berzins said: "There should always be some level of distrust of what we read on the Internet."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline Experts welcome laws to curb fake news. Subscribe