Fake news: Regulate only during elections?

Review on how to tackle it should consider where greatest harm lies, rather than blanket approach.

The recent concerns over fake news are warranted, but its regulation needs careful study.PHOTO: AFP

It is rarely good news when the news itself makes the headlines. Recently, the news was about fake news: The Government said it is conducting a review on how to tackle it. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament that fake news has been a problem in Singapore, but has not yet had as much impact as in other countries. However, there was a risk it could be used as a weapon by foreign agencies and countries. The Government would announce a position once the review was concluded, he said.

Indeed, the recent concerns over fake news are warranted, but its regulation needs careful study because the harm from unintended consequences may be worse than the damage a fake news site might inflict. In China, spreading false rumours online can lead to a jail sentence of three years if the rumours are reposted more than 500 times or visited by 5,000 users. However, netizens expressed concern that the law might stifle the reporting of corrupt officials.

China's example indicates that the definition of what "fake" and "fake news" are will need special care. We would not want to stifle whistle-blowing here, either. And as the Government is the biggest purveyor of news in Singapore, we would not want accidental errors to trip it up. To look at how creators and purveyors of fake news might be deterred and perpetrators punished, it is useful to understand the conditions under which fake news thrives. Fake news is a symptom, not a cause, of political messiness. It is true of Macedonia, where I first encountered the term in 2014 during a media research project, and of the United States , where the evidence of messiness is plain to see. In Macedonia, while interviewing leaders of a non-profit organisation that did media training, I was surprised to learn that it also did fact-checking of the news.

As BBC first reported, several of the sites that disseminated fake news during the US presidential elections were from a village in Macedonia, where social and political conditions are abject. The main reason for them doing so was to generate traffic that would then carry advertisements. A site could make US$3,000 (S$4,200) a month, which is several months of an average worker's salary in that particular village.

As for the US, one key factor allowing fake news sites to thrive is the removal of the "fairness doctrine" under the first Bush administration. Under the doctrine, all media outlets had to allow opposing views to be published or broadcast. It is even hard-coded into some hardware.

The fairness doctrine was abolished because the sense was that there were enough media outlets to offer a diversity of views. That is, if one were to read the multiple news outlets, one would have different views of the subject.

The problem, though, is that that is not how we consume media. We do not actively seek out alternative views. In fact, as behavioural research has shown, we tend to seek confirmatory views.

In Singapore, the environment for fake news to thrive is arguably less hospitable. For one thing, we have a high-trust environment where government agencies and public institutions are trusted. In recent years, the mainstream media has striven to be balanced in covering elections.

Also, our existing laws are able to penalise fake news content. Witness the fake news site The Real Singapore (TRS), the student who created and shared a false statement purportedly from the Prime Minister's Office announcing the death of former premier Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, and the dealer who in 2001 doctored a media release to affect the price of a stock. The couple behind TRS were jailed, the student was warned and the dealer was fined.

Among the laws used were the Sedition Act. There is also a wide provision in Section 505 of the Penal Code against anyone who "makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report in written, electronic or other media" that is intended to or is likely to cause public alarm and induce someone to commit acts against the State or against a person or a community.

Mr Shanmugam, when addressing Parliament, said that there are remedies to deal with falsehoods under current laws. But he described them as "limited", adding: "The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. So we need to do more."

Meanwhile, the largest Internet advertising platforms, Google and Facebook, are taking action to weed out fake news and extremist sites. For them, taking action to ensure that the advertising space is trustworthy is essential. Major brands have pulled advertising after algorithms put it on extremist sites.

Creating a fake news site that looks credible enough requires resources. If there is no commercial incentive, there must be other incentives. The ability to influence an election would be one incentive. In fact, perhaps the biggest harm such sites may create is in influencing free and fair elections.

So perhaps it might be worth Singapore considering, as an experiment, limiting the regulation of fake news to the electioneering period. That is, during that specific time, there are special penalties for fake news sites - sites which discuss the elections that deliberately do not correct errors even after they are pointed out. Such regulation would be in line with the current Internet Election Advertising rules where special rules apply from the time the writ is issued to the day before the polls.

Unlike the Internet Election Advertising rules, where what is prohibited is clear, an entire mechanism will need to be set up to determine what was put up indeed constituted fake news. The narrow window limits any possible unintended consequences to just those few days. It will take some careful study to ensure that the news does not make the news.

  • The writer is professor of media law and policy at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and vice-chairman of the Media Literacy Council.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Fake news: Regulate only during elections?'. Print Edition | Subscribe