Select Committee hearings on fake news

Two academics call for a multi-pronged approach

Any government measures should target those who created the falsehoods, said Dr Norman Vasu, a senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Prof Tan said overly broad laws could risk stifling the "bottom-up energy and mobilisation that is needed to fight deliberate falsehoods".
Prof Tan said overly broad laws could risk stifling the "bottom-up energy and mobilisation that is needed to fight deliberate falsehoods".
Dr Vasu stressed that the question of deciding what should be defined as true or false should not be left in the hands of a select few.
Dr Vasu stressed that the question of deciding what should be defined as true or false should not be left in the hands of a select few.

But new measures shouldn't stifle public exchange of ideas, they say

A multi-pronged approach should be adopted to tackle the problem of deliberate online falsehoods, two academics said yesterday, as no one solution is a silver bullet.

The measures should also not stifle the public exchange of ideas and opinions that are required in democracies, and key in building trust, they added.

The measures they cited in such an approach include stepping up media literacy, undertaking local research and updating laws.

The two academics - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Norman Vasu and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan - were speaking at a public hearing of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It was the seventh day of hearings, which have seen 59 representatives speak since March 14. The last one will take place today.

In his written submission, Dr Vasu outlined six categories of online falsehoods based on the degree of threat. Topping the list was disinformation aimed at undermining society, while parody was at the bottom. Other falsehoods, ranked according to diminishing degree of severity, were those spread for financial gain, sloppy journalism, interpreting facts or critical reports for political purposes, and differing interpretations of facts as a result of ideological bias.

Dr Vasu said responses should target only falsehoods created to undermine the state and untruths spread for financial gain, as such malicious spreading of disinformation can undermine elections and sow discord.

In other cases, measures are already in place to correct wrong information, like those arising from sloppy journalism, he added.

Both academics also said legislation can be considered, but highlighted its limitations. Laws may fail to keep pace with technological development, Dr Vasu pointed out.

Associate Professor Tan said overly broad laws could risk stifling the "bottom-up energy and mobilisation that is needed to fight deliberate falsehoods", and should be used only in situations of "clear and present danger".

For instance, a government's branding of a statement as false could be used for partisan purposes, and governments elsewhere have also had a hand in creating or spreading falsehoods.

Laws, if introduced, may also not adequately address the problem as they may not have the reach and jurisdiction to combat disinformation warfare mounted by foreign powers, Prof Tan added.

Instead, Singapore's efforts should focus on ensuring such campaigns do not succeed in undermining domestic resilience and social cohesion, he argued.

Dr Vasu stressed that the question of deciding what should be defined as true or false should not be left in the hands of a select few. Nor should governments try to do the same, said Prof Tan.

"The moment any government (tells each person what they should believe), then it is more likely than not the piece of information may not be believed at all," he added.

Any response to online falsehoods should target only those that are deliberately spread to undermine society, added Dr Vasu. He also said the creators of disinformation should be the ones taken to task, instead of focusing on people who pass them on as they may be doing so unwittingly.

When committee member Chia Yong Yong asked if this meant a person transmitting racially inflammatory information need not be held accountable, Dr Vasu disagreed.

He said it was important to consider the intention. Someone passing on racially incendiary falsehoods in Singapore will likely intend to stir up racial tensions.

Committee members Edwin Tong and Rahayu Mahzam posed a similar question to Prof Tan, who replied that concerns about racially inflammatory material here are valid.

But Singapore has not been too badly affected by incidents involving such falsehoods, and this points to "some level of local resilience", he said, even as he called for more local studies to be done on the issue.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Two academics call for a multi-pronged approach'. Print Edition | Subscribe