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Getting Singaporeans involved in the fight against fake news

Hardly a month goes by without the subject of fake news making the news, including in Singapore. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that most Singaporeans remain largely unconcerned with this issue.

A crowd at the SG: Digital Wonderland 2019 event in May 2019 where they could learn how to spot and expose fake news.

A crowd at the SG: Digital Wonderland 2019 event in May 2019 where they could learn how to spot and expose fake news.

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Hardly a month goes by without the subject of fake news making the news, including in Singapore.

In May, Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (Pofma) after a marathon two-day debate involving 38 political office holders and lawmakers. 

A month later, in a dialogue where he spelt out his vision of how the Government will engage Singaporeans to chart the country’s future together, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat also touched on the issue of fake news.

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that most Singaporeans remain largely unconcerned with this issue.

Much of the criticism and challenges to Pofma before it was passed were raised by rights groups, journalists and technology firms, over concerns that it may stifle free speech.

After Parliament passed the Bill, the discourse about it has subsided. But fake news remains a clear and present danger. What more can the Government and society at large do to tackle this scourge?

At the June 15 dialogue, Mr Heng was asked if he was concerned that the rise of fake news would make it harder to ascertain what is the truth. He stressed that tackling the issue is critically important for an open country with citizens of diverse backgrounds.

“We can debate and have different opinions, but it must be based on fact. If we debate without having any facts, it can be unproductive or even destructive,” he said.

He added that efforts have begun to address this in schools where students are being taught what to trust on social media and the Internet for example.

But are efforts like these and legislation such as Pofma enough, given the pervasive nature of the threat?

The insidious threat presented by fake news and online falsehoods means that a top-down, government-led approach is likely to be only one part of any successful solution.

Recent well-documented influence operations by state actors such as Russia and non-state organisations like the Islamic State terrorist group have shown that their most effective efforts targeted audiences through as many channels as possible.

These involve tapping social media platforms, closed networks such as WhatsApp and Telegram, as well as influencing broader social discourse through word of mouth and mainstream media.

While the playbook on how to successfully combat fake news is still being written today, some basic elements of an effective strategy are clear.

Firstly, there must be a broad-based understanding of the clear and present danger posed by fake news in all its different forms.

An oft-quoted survey done in 2018 showed that 80 per cent of Singaporeans believe they can tell fake news from the truth, yet it also showed that 90 per cent of them subsequently failed to identify fake news headlines.

This complacency represents the biggest challenge to combating the fake news scourge, as a lack of public interest in tackling the threat will impede any broader efforts.

Secondly, there is a need to recognise that fake news and misinformation campaigns are highly dependent on fast-evolving technology.

The evolution and spread of the fake news threat from social media, to closed networks and groups, to the more ominous threat of deep fakes in the form of altered but highly realistic videos, have taken place within the span of a few short years.

It is almost impossible to predict where the next trend will take us, but if broader technological shifts are anything to go by, future threats will be harder to spot, easier to spread quickly, and hence much more difficult to counter.

A potential side effect of this is increased apathy and frustration by Singaporeans, who may choose to isolate themselves from  news and information, given that it’s potentially impossible to ascertain if any of it is true.

At the very least, this will result in an uninformed and uneducated population. In the worst case, this could lead to a society unable to make the right decisions at critical events such as general elections.

Finally, it is clear that any sustainable and effective counter to fake news will require a whole-of-society approach, with the public, private and people sectors all playing a part.

During a recent fact-finding trip to Europe, I observed that the efforts to fight the spread of fake news had drawn support from across the social spectrum.

Admittedly, the impact of misinformation campaigns in the region is a much more visible threat, due to the actions of Russia in recent years. 

But the concerted efforts of stakeholders such as governments, education institutions, non-government and volunteer organisations, the media and individual volunteers have created a holistic counterweight to fake news, and proven to be the most effective approach.

The Brussels-based non-government organisation (NGO) Lie Detectors, which is funded solely by philanthropic donations, is a good example of cross-sector collaboration.

Operating solely in Europe currently, it works with journalists and media experts to help schoolchildren between the ages of 10 and 15 be critical thinkers able to detect lies and fake news, and to make informed choices and resist peer pressure.

Through a 90-minute course conducted by practising journalists, the organisation has already reached 6,000 schoolchildren. In contrast, the efforts in Singapore have thus far been largely government-driven, focusing on some educational outreach and also on legislation.

There have been some efforts to involve the people and private sector, through initiatives such as the Media Literacy Council’s Better Internet Campaign. But more needs to be done.

To achieve an educated, aware and informed population which experts say is the best inoculation against fake news, more sectors need to be roped in to contribute expertise and resources, whether it’s in terms of awareness-building, technological capabilities or manpower and knowledge.

This could include NGOs and volunteer organisations which can develop outreach campaigns targeting various segments of society, or private sector companies offering fact-checking capabilities to inform and educate citizens. 

The Government could play a role in marshalling and encouraging such efforts, and to bring together different stakeholders to analyse and discuss how joint efforts could be deployed to safeguard society from the threat. But it should not be solely a top-down approach.

A credible and respected media sector is seen as one of the most important counter-weights to fake news, and is seen in many countries as being a critical national institution.

Mainstream media organisations should be given the space and support to strengthen and grow capabilities in order to continue to be seen as a trusted source of reliable and timely information to Singaporeans.

At some point, there may also be commercial considerations related to the potential weaponisation of fake news in the corporate sector, especially as companies become the targets of misinformation campaigns that aim to disrupt their business operations.

At that point, the private sector may begin to place greater weight on the issue and related counter-measures, giving rise to demand and supply of services and products that could combat or pre-empt the effects of any fake news attacks. In such a scenario, relevant legislation might need to be reviewed and developed to address the realities of the day.

The threat of fake news is real and likely to persist for many years to come. Hopefully, Singapore will not need to become a target of a major fake news attack before we realise the need for a whole-of-nation approach to tackle the problem.



Nicholas Fang is a former Nominated Member of Parliament and managing director of a strategic communications consultancy and a market research agency which offers a fact-checking platform to counter fake news pertaining to Singapore.

Related topics

fake news Pofma online falsehood

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