Firm stand against fake news
PUBLISHED ON 23 Mar 2018

Deliberate falsehoods detrimental to democracies: PPF


Representatives from the PAP Policy Forum (PPF) appeared before the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood on 23 March 2018. They were Member of Parliament (Sembawang GRC) Vikram Nair, and activists Benjamin Tay, Jude Tan, and Sujatha Selvakumar.


In their written submission, the PPF said the spread of deliberate falsehoods can seriously affect democracies, undermine national institutions, change values for the worse. Pointing out the advancement of Internet and improvement in technology, PPF added: “We can see no good reason for allowing such deliberate falsehoods to spread widely. And such falsehoods are likely to spread widely, in the digital age.”


It further cited how a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) sought to mislead readers by painting a highly misleading picture of Singapore. 


The report had focused on Amos Yee's criticisms of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew instead of his offensive remarks against religions, and it also failed to point out that the founders of the socio-political website The Real Singapore (TRS) had fabricated "sensational falsehoods" to generate advertising revenue. Not to mention that the report had not included relevant, reputable third-party studies which was "inconvenient to its views.


Such sources, said PPF can easily influence opinions as it can be "put online, and circulated with or without attribution."


Separately the Select Committee also stated that HRW was invited to give oral evidence during the public hearing sessions, however ultimately decided that it was unable to participate despite an offer for a video-conference.

Read the PPF paper



Fact-checking council needed to counter fake news: Local media 


Local media organisations advocated the setting up of a fact-checking body to counter the trend of fake news online. In their written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Channel NewsAsia and Singapore Press Holdings both agreed that there has to be council or an alliance to identify, assess and react to fake news swiftly.


Both media outlets suggested various minimum criteria when assessing online falsehoods, which includes prediction on fabrication and not fact; content which is available online – website, blogs, social media posts, among others; and deliberate intent.


SPH also raised the concern of free speech where, “Public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest.”


“Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law,” it added.


Mr Warren Fernandez, the Editor of The Straits Times told the Committee that an “important distinction” needed to be made between the “exercising of judgment by editors, and censorship or self-censorship”. “Before we publish anything, we would want to assure ourselves that the content we are putting out is not libelous, unfair or biased … it’s us exercising responsibility,” he said.


“We recognise it’s a duty, and we make judgment calls and we take constant feedback from many sources - newsmakers, readers, organisations ... that’s the critical role a responsible media organisation would play.


SPH and CNA also emphasised the critical role mainstream media play to help readers distinguish between credible news and misleading or false reports, through quality journalism. CNA said “Capabilities and newsrooms must continue to be strengthened, to address the problem of DOFs … via high-quality journalism, fact-checking and in-depth reporting.”


Mediacorp’s editor-in-chief Mr Walter Fernandez also added that there is zero tolerance for falsehoods and that multiple checks happen within the newsroom. SPH also added that there is a need for legislation for social media channels, for the content that these platforms choose to publish and promote.



Deliberate online falsehoods can harm democratic processes


Professor Thio Li-ann from the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, suggested in her written representation that a law regulating deliberate online falsehoods may be justified on the ground of ‘public order’. This is because of the damage they pose to democratic institutions and processes.


She noted that not all forms of speech are ‘equally worthy of protection’, especially if one speaks with the goal to defame another’s reputation or incite violence against an ethnic or religious group. Professor Thio also highlighted that deliberate online falsehoods can be a “hybrid” between a threat to public order and national security, citing how it can be an attempt to undermine democratic elections.


In her paper, Professor Thio also suggested a Netizen Code of Conduct to promote a culture of honesty and integrity, both online and offline. She added that students could also be taught the importance of discernment, to be able to ascertain truth from falsehood or at least being apprised of the problem.