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‘Nearly impossible’ for draft fake news laws to affect academic research: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — It would be “nearly impossible” for scholarly work to run afoul of the new laws against fake news, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that when academics speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly funded local university, they should expect government agencies to present their arguments to convince the public otherwise in the interest of open debate.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that when academics speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly funded local university, they should expect government agencies to present their arguments to convince the public otherwise in the interest of open debate.

SINGAPORE — It would be “nearly impossible” for scholarly work to run afoul of the new laws against fake news, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said.

The only way for this to happen is “if the research uses false observations and data to start with, you fabricate the data, which prevents public discourse from taking place properly,” Mr Ong pointed out in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8).

In that case, such work cannot pass the professional standards of any decent university or research institute, he added.

Weighing in on the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, Mr Ong assured the House that the Government will continue to “stay true to science and empirical evidence” when it comes to empirical research.

“We have always been — sometimes to a fault. And if it is an opinion-based research, we will have a vigorous public debate,” Mr Ong said, stressing that the proposed laws do not apply to empirically based research by the science faculties as well as interpretive research carried out by the humanities departments.

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While the ambit of the new laws have little to do with the Education Ministry, Mr Ong said he felt the need to speak after he received a petition from academics — which had 124 signatories as of Monday afternoon — requesting that the draft legislation include safeguards for scholarly research.

Mr Ong said he believed that these academics’ real concern was not about their research per se, but that the laws would be “abused and used to stifle political discourse in Singapore”, given that some of the academics are also activists.

In response, he reiterated that activists will not be caught by the proposed laws if they express an opinion or hurl criticisms at the Government.

“The law treats all activists equally — whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street. It does not target academics. You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government,” Mr Ong said.

He added: “Conversely, any activist — whether you are an academic or man or woman on the street — who uses the online medium to spread falsehoods that harm society will not be spared under the law. The law offers no special shield to academics either.”

THE THREE GATES

In his speech, Mr Ong also outlined the criteria — or the three “gates” as he called them — before any statement published online can be corrected or removed under the powers of the new laws.

First, the statement must be false, and second, it must cause public harm.

Third, there is only criminal liability if the propagator of the falsehood has knowledge that it is false and harmful, he stressed.

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As examples of published falsehoods, Mr Ong cited a 2017 news report in Germany alleging that 50 “Arab-looking” men assaulted women on New Year’s Eve and a 1998 study by discredited British researcher Andrew Wakefield — which was retracted in 2010 — that linked measles vaccine to autism.

“Deliberate lies, connivance, impersonations, incitement of unrest and societal anger and turmoil — this is the world of online falsehoods and manipulations that this Bill is targeting,” he said.

In contrast, research follows a “strict discipline and process” where experiments are conducted, data gathered and hypotheses tested.

For empirical-based research that seeks to understand how the physical world works, Mr Ong noted that “scientists are questioning truths all the time”.

For example, Newton’s laws of motion, which at one point were widely accepted, are now proven to be partially true.

He also said that the proposed laws will not criminalise previous discoveries that have been disproved or new ideas that seek to disprove well-established theories.

“Researchers use real data and observations to draw their conclusions. Even if the data may not be accurate because the experiment was not well-conducted, or the data collected is not reproducible, there is no falsehood as defined by (the proposed laws).” 

Similarly, humanities scholars that conduct research based on interpretation would not be covered under the Bill as their conclusions are in the form of “hypotheses, theories and opinions”.

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ON POLITICAL DISCOURSE

Turning to what he felt could be the real concern of the academics who signed the petition, Mr Ong said that “we cannot conflate research with activism”.

Putting the proposed laws aside, public discourse is “becoming more rigorous” in an era of “free-for-all communications and interactions”, he noted.

But things “may get a little bit different for academics”, he said.

“Academics are well-respected members of society. We hold academics to ‘conduct professorial’ — high standards of integrity in their teaching, their research and the validity of their views put forward in public,” Mr Ong said. “This is especially so when they speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly funded local university.”

Still, academics are free to “put out an opinion that Singapore’s growth model has failed, you can say meritocracy in Singapore has failed, you can say that the education system is elitist, our social welfare doesn’t work and it does more harm to the poor than good”, he added. The proposed laws will not apply in these cases because these are opinions.

“But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly funded university, please expect government agencies, if we do not agree with you, to put out the data and put out our arguments to convince the public otherwise,” Mr Ong said.

“If that has a chilling effect, please chill.”

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Likewise, the “same and perhaps, even higher expectations” apply to political office-holders such as himself.

“Whatever we say needs to be well-thought-out, set the tone for society, and be in the best interest of our people,” he said.

He noted that if any Cabinet minister “puts forward a view in a speech, during a dialogue or in an Instagram or Facebook post and if the public don’t agree with us, they will speak up and give us a piece of their mind”.

“And we have to consider those views and re-evaluate our position,” Mr Ong said. “This interaction will get more active and rigorous. It is part and parcel of modern governance.”

The Government wants this interaction and exchange of ideas and opinions “to be free of malicious falsehoods which poison the atmosphere and mislead the discourse”, he reiterated.

Concluding his speech, Mr Ong said a big worry of the modern world is whether democracy can withstand the onslaught of online falsehoods.

“Today, the odds are stacked against those of us who are trying to uphold institutions,” he said. “The balance of power is asymmetrical, heavily weighted in favour of those with malicious intentions.”

The ambit of the proposed Act is small “relative to the explosion of online capabilities that is now presented to those with malicious intents”.

“It is not the omnipresent, draconian, nuclear weapon that some people make it out to be,” he said.

“While small, (the proposed Act) is a necessary response to this tectonic technological change, to protect democratic public discourse which we cherish. Because for democracy and constructive discourse to work, there must be a common understanding of the underlying facts — what happened and what did not.”

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