No easy answers, says ex-US homeland chief

Singapore is discussing the right issues when it comes to laws against fake news but there are no easy answers, said former United States secretary for homeland security Michael Chertoff.

Rather than debate aspects of misinformation that are outright deceptive - such as impersonation, artificial amplification of content and intervention by foreign entities - the harder question to answer is what constitutes fake news, said Mr Chertoff in his keynote speech on the second day of regional security conference Milipol Asia-Pacific 2019. "What's fake or false? Sometimes it gets into the area of exaggeration or taking things out of context. Who decides what is false? And what is the remedy - do you shut it down completely or give a warning that the info is not true?"

In his address yesterday, Mr Chertoff, 65, who served under president George W. Bush, also touched on data protection and privacy. "Fake news isn't new. The reason it became urgent to deal with is because the amplification and virility of fake news is a new phenomenon," he told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the conference.

While he refrained from commenting directly on the draft laws Singapore introduced on Monday to combat fake news, he said it was useful to draw a distinction between a "clear falsity" and opinion. He also said it was important for the courts to be involved in determining what constituted fake news.

"We're interested in looking at what Singapore and other parts of the world are doing, and I would like to see if Singapore can get involved in the commission," he said, referring to the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a group he co-chairs that aims to address foreign interference in elections. It is made up of various sector leaders from Europe and America.

He is also the co-founder of security and risk management consultancy The Chertoff Group, and previously served as a US federal judge and assistant attorney-general. During his years as a federal prosecutor, he investigated and prosecuted cases of political corruption, organised crime and terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks.

Another pressing concern is the issue of hate speech, which can "inspire" people to commit acts of violence such as the Christchurch shootings last month, Mr Chertoff told ST. The Australian gunman had reportedly posted a manifesto online before the attack, where he said he was inspired by Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who was responsible for the deaths of 77 people in 2011. "This would not have happened 20 years ago. There wouldn't have been a way to link them up. This is similar with the recruitment of terrorism," Mr Chertoff said, noting that the spread of ideologies promoting violence could trigger one to act.


He is also the co-founder of security and risk management consultancy The Chertoff Group, and previously served as a US federal judge and assistant attorney general.


The three-day Milipol Asia-Pacific conference is being held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre and will end today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2019, with the headline 'No easy answers, says ex-US homeland chief'. Subscribe