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Different approaches to tackle online falsehoods
PUBLISHED ON 27 Mar 2018
Representatives from various groups made known their views to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which is into the final week of public hearings.

Mr Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), suggested that an independent body of non-government experts can help to identify if falsehoods are part of a larger information operation. The independent body can include those from the public sector, private sector and civil society. This is so that the group would not appear to be linked to or funded by the Government. And if the falsehoods are proven to be part of a larger information operation., Mr Ang said a strategic response should be taken.

In his submission, Mr Ang highlighted that online falsehoods, originating from state or non-state actors seeking to destabilise Singapore, amount to national security threats. These threats, he added, should be dealt with by the government. Given that legislation may also create problems of perception and legitimacy to the issues, Mr Ang noted that it is important to build in explicit checks and balances into the legislation.

Dr Cherian George, a professor of media studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University cautioned that the use of criminal law can be counter-productive especially in the wrong situation. He reasoned that while hateful expression may require a firm societal response, not all such expressions should be tackled with criminal law.

United States forensics expert Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College added during his oral representation via video conferencing that technology companies have shown a pattern of denial and inaction towards the spread of inappropriate online content on their respective platforms. Quoting the issues of online recruitment and radicalisation of extremists worldwide and child pornography, Professor Farid said the companies "put in just enough to stave off the regulatory issues." 

While he acknowldeged the technology available to detect and prevent the spread of inappropriate online content, Prof Farid said that it will still have to be paired with a manual review.

Separately, inter-faith non-profit organisation, Roses of Peace, said that they will work with partners such as the Media Literacy Council to develop a digital playbook to educate and equip people with the knowledge and tools to counter fake news. They playbook will detail steps citizens can take to report and respond to divisive content online. The group also shared that it recently launched a one-year Ambassador Programme, which will see 30 participants receive training on digital media engagement and facilitation skills.

The group said that these initiatives will help plug the gaps in uneven levels of critical literacy skills across society and the lack of digital solutions to help people build up their critical literacy skills.


Use of criminal law can be counter-productive argues academic

While hateful expression may require a firm societal response, not all such expression should be tackled with criminal law, said Dr Cherian George.

Dr George, who is a professor of media studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University on 27 March 2018, cautioned that the use of criminal law can be counter-productive especially in the wrong situations. Making his point to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Dr George said that hateful expression that incites discrimination has to be distinguished from mere insult and day-to-day expressions of intolerance.

To better counter such hate propaganda, Dr George provided broad suggestions such as real-time monitoring of online messages, fact-checking non-governmental organisations and improving the media and information literacy of the society.

Notably, Select Committee member, Senior Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information Dr Janil Puthucheary, took issue with Dr George’s suggestion to repeal Section 298 of the Penal Code, which criminalises the deliberate wounding of racial and religious feelings. 

Dr George had explained: "The same law in India and Malaysia, as well as religious insult laws in many other countries, have been weaponised by merchants of intolerance and hate,” adding that it should be repealed before something similar happens in Singapore.

However, Dr Janil pointed out that weaponisation of insult laws has not occurred in Singapore, despite the fact that Singapore has these laws.
“I’m sure you’d agree that in other jurisdictions, in the absence of such laws, race and religion have been weaponised for all kinds of purposes, including political,” said Dr Puthucheary. “So the presence of the law doesn’t automatically mean it will be weaponised, and the absence of this law doesn’t automatically mean it can’t be weaponised.”
 

Public education and media literacy needed

Non-mainstream media journalists advocated a Freedom of Information Act, and encouraged the ideals of public education, openness and also media literacy during their oral representation to the Select Committee of Falsehoods.

Chief Editor of The Online Citizen Terry Xu wrote in his written submission that the best way is to allow citizens to gain access to more sources of information and for them to develop a questioning mind set. A former editor of the TOC Howard Lee said that legislation does more harm than good to the democratic process.

The Freedom of Information Act, Kirsten Han, another former editor of the TOC emphasised, will not impede on the Government’s ability to keep things confidential for national security reasons. In addition, public education and media literacy education was advocated as a more effective long term measure. “Singaporeans should be taught to be sceptical of every source they read and to approach everything with a critical eye,” said Ms Han.
 

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