Should an alleged falsehood be taken down?

An exchange on whether alleged falsehoods that wound racial or religious feelings should be taken down took place yesterday between freelance journalist Kirsten Han and members of a parliamentary committee.

It involved a 2014 Facebook post about an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men in Myanmar, which was reported by a local news site. The post, which was later proven to be false, went viral, and armed Buddhist mobs filled the streets of Mandalay. Here is an edited excerpt of the exchange.

Ms Han: Even if we assume it is false, I do not see how, at this point, compelling a takedown would necessarily fix the problem, because this is playing on such deep-rooted social divisions that, by the time you get to the incitement of people with swords running around in the streets, the actual existence of the post is irrelevant. The takedown of it will not defuse this. It might... backfire and make people go, Facebook is deliberately oppressing us, it has something to hide, they don't want this rape to go out, even if the rape is false, and might lead to more inflamed tensions.

Dr Janil Puthucheary: So, you are more worried that taking it down will cause greater harm and inflame passions more. You will prefer for this to be left to circulate. Is that your position?

Ms Han: No, what I am saying is in the Singapore context, we have laws like the Sedition Act that could tackle inciting disharmony between racial and religious groups.

Dr Janil: That is not the question I am asking... I am asking (whether) your characterisation is: It is better to leave it up there and allow further hatred, further violence, further confusion to spread because you are more worried about the backfire effect than the further harm that disinformation does? We haven't worked out how we will take it down yet, but I am asking: Do you want it taken down?

Ms Han: No.

Dr Janil: For the reasons I have stated?

Ms Han: No, my position would be that we should explore other measures and use the existing laws that we already have, but I would not take that down.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline 'Should an alleged falsehood be taken down?'. Print Edition | Subscribe