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‘Fake news’ is far more complex; problem of information disorder goes beyond US and social media: Expert

SINGAPORE – Calling the term “fake news” woefully inadequate in capturing the complexity of the scourge currently afflicting the world, Harvard expert Claire Wardle suggested that this “information disorder” should be grouped into seven categories that range from satire, manipulated content, to fabricated content.

SINGAPORE – Calling the term “fake news” woefully inadequate in capturing the complexity of the scourge currently afflicting the world, Harvard expert Claire Wardle suggested that this “information disorder” should be grouped into seven categories that range from satire, manipulated content, to fabricated content.

Such information disorder, while not defined as “black and white”, can also be categorised according to its level of truthfulness and intention to cause harm, said Dr Wardle, an expert in user-generated content, in her written representation to the Select Committee studying deliberate online falsehoods here.

Her submission was part of the 167 written representations accepted and published on the committee’s website on Monday (Apr 09). Three written representations were not published, said the committee, as it pointed out that those written by Dr Damien Cheong and Dr Gulizar Haciyakupoglu “concerned matters of national security and international relations”.

Their oral evidence was heard in private sessions. The third was from Mr Alex Tan, founder of The States Times Review, as “it was not made it good faith” and “should not, as a matter of principle, be protected by parliamentary privilege”. “In any event, we understand that Mr Tan has already published his written representation,” the committee said.

Dr Wardle, an executive director of First Draft – a non-profit organisation that is focused on experimental projects to fight disinformation – is also a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy. She had previously testified at a United Kingdom committee hearing on fake news and misinformation in February.

In her written representation to Singapore’s Select Committee, Dr Wardle said much of the debated content is not fake, but used out of context or manipulated, while polluted information also extends beyond news.

Elaborating on the seven types of information disorder, she said that the least problematic of them is satire or parody, when people often fail to realise the content they are reading is satire. The next one is a false connection, such as when headlines, visuals or captions do not support the article’s content.

This is followed by misleading content and false context, where genuine content is taken out of its original context and circulated. The others are: imposter content and manipulated content, where genuine information is manipulated to deceive others. The last category is fabricated content.

These types of information disorder can also be categorised into misinformation, disinformation and malinformation, said Dr Wardle. Content that is false but not intended to cause harm will fall under misinformation, while the same type of content which is intended to cause harm will be considered disinformation. Truthful information that is aimed at causing harm is malinformation.

The authorities can consider the different elements that make up the information disorder, she said. For instance, they can consider who are the agents and their motivations for creating misleading or inaccurate information, as well as the type of messages being distributed.

They should also take into account how the messages can be interpreted differently, depending on the source of the message, and how it ties in with the readers’ existing beliefs, among other things.

Another suggestion was also to provide additional investment and training opportunities to strengthen “non-partisan media”. This comes as newsroom resources shrink, which results in fewer editors catching honest mistakes, or fewer journalists being trained to verify content sources on social media, for instance.

Funding and coordination of an international research agenda for monitoring the scale and impact of disinformation was another idea put forward by the researcher, a prominent expert on online falsehoods whose views are often sought after by international media.

Dr Wardle noted that current debates on this issue have been “focused disproportionately” on the United States, political disinformation, Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter bots.

“In fact, this problem of information disorder is global, and includes powerful disinformation related to science, health, religion and ethnicity. In certain places it is leading to protests and violence, and people are losing their lives because of decisions based on inaccurate information.”

Apart from the written representations from the witnesses who gave their oral evidence over eight days of public hearings last month, the 10-member Select Committee also received written representations from a wide range of people, including students, retirees, engineers and advocacy groups.

One of them came from a group of four friends: Research fellow Joses Ho, 33; research assistant David Tan, lawyer Ervin Tan, both 29; and Channel NewsAsia journalist Gwyneth Teo, 28.

The group conducted data scraping of the Facebook pages or groups of six local advocacy groups to determine the reliability of the links the groups shared and the level of biasedness in the content they shared, among other things.

The groups were: We are Against Pink Dot in Singapore, Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family, Say No to Foreign Intervention in Singapore’s Politics, Humanist Society (Singapore), Nature Society (Singapore), and Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Their results found that while some advocacy groups may share a higher proportion of unreliable news content, only a small portion of this comes from sources that are discernibly “fake”. The bulk came from sources whose reliability was harder to determine. They also found that some groups shared links from extremely biased and partisan sources.

While the group acknowledged the small sample size of their study and its limitations, their preliminary analyses suggest that fake news is already present and trafficked among local advocacy groups. They found that fake news is not a “binary distinction”, and comes in varying degrees of reliability.

A legislation based on a strict definition of fake news may do little to curb the spread of misinformation online, since only a small proportion of unreliable information consists of overtly fabricated stories, said the group.

SOME CHANGES MADE TO SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE AFTER REQUESTS

The Select Committee has made some changes to the summary of the evidence published on the Parliament website after five witnesses requested for these amendments.

In a press release issued on Monday, the Select Committee said they received these e-mail requests after the hearings were completed on March 29. “Some of the requested amendments were incorporated into a new version of the summary of evidence, some were not,” said the committee.

For instance, freelance journalist Kirsten Han had requested for 11 amendments, and her summary of evidence was amended to reflect five of these points, said the committee.

It also noted that she had written separately to the committee, asking if the matter would be addressed urgently and if her summary would be taken down while the requested amendments were being reviewed.

“The Committee notes that her position on the summary of her own testimony is in stark contrast to the view she expressed before the Select Committee on the takedown of online falsehoods. Nothing should be taken down, save as a last resort, she had suggested,” said the committee.

As for PhD student Howard Lee, the five additional points he requested to be added to his summary of evidence were included. Two out of three amendments requested by The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu, as well as five out of nine amendments requested by founder of dialectic.sg and confirm.sg Gaurav Keerthi were made.

On social worker Jolovan Wham’s concerns that the Community Action Network’s written representation was not taken into account, the committee said they will be considered in its report and analysis. His request for an additional point to be added to his summary of evidence was also included.

Noting that the summaries were produced as working notes for reference each day, the committee said their analysis and report will be based on the full verbatim transcripts of the public hearings, as well as their written submissions.

It added that all witnesses were also told that they would be able to check the transcripts of their own appearances.

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