The Scourge of Fake News

The article below was written and submittted by Lun.

Since Trump started calling out fake news during his presidential election campaigns back in 2016, the term ‘fake news’ has been trending around the globe. In this age of efficient communication, it is no wonder the spread of fake news is one central concern of cyber security. So what exactly constitutes as fake news? And how can one guard themselves from such news—if they can even be considered news in the first place?

Traditionally, fake news is news that is deliberately fabricated in order to deceive readers. Today, fake news is also news that are inaccurate and most often sensationalised—created to gain attention and mislead, while damaging a reputation or destabilising a society. In Singapore, there is exceptional importance in combating against fake news as they are capable in threatening the social fabric of our multi-racial, multi-religious country.

The spread of fake news is on the rise due to different distribution channels on the internet, such as social media. These low-cost, easy-to-use platforms provide functions that ease the sharing of news reports and are capable of reaching out to masses of people within minutes. In addition, social media news sites are not subjected to any formal fact-checking procedures or editorial judgment, and they can also maintain an anonymous front in their reports. Furthermore, echo chambers that develop due to the presence of interest groups also fuel the spread of fake news. These echo chambers promote confirmation bias, segregation and social polarisation, when specific interest groups reinforce ideas that may not be the perception of the vast majority.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon in Singapore. Since the days of the Maria Hertogh Riots and the 1964 Racial Riots, where fake news was used to sow discord between the different religions and races in the lead up to the riots, media authorities have constantly been on the watch for false news reports that can threaten the peace and harmony of our society. But ever since the popularity of social media rose on our sunny island, the spread of fake news has been steadfastly increasing. The modified Straits Times article in December 2016 on President Tony Tan’s invitation to the Thai King to visit Singapore, a hoax report of the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015, resulting in several international news outlets—including CNN and CCTV—prematurely announcing it on their channels, inaccurate speculations of a roof of a HDB block collapsing through a photo circulating online in November 2016 and multiple cases of fake news on (now defunct) anti-establishment news site are just a small fraction of fake news plaguing Singapore’s media.

The biggest question nowadays is, how are we going to guard ourselves from inaccurate information? The government has provide us some solutions in recent years, such as the Telecommunications Act, a class licence cancellation by IMDA, and a four-month ‘Better Internet Campaign’ initiated by the Media Literacy Council—where one of its focal points is to educate internet users to discern fake news from real ones. In 2012, the government also set up a website called Factually to clarify misconceptions about its policies and correct false assertions on government matters, which can harm Singapore’s social fabric.

In addition, Facebook and Google has promised to cut fake news sites from their advertising programmes. Facebook has also developed technology to enable users to flag news as false, effectively simplifying users’ ability to report fake news, while Google provided Chrome plug-ins to allow users with the ability to flag fake news and to provide users with the credibility of different sites.

Nevertheless, depending on the government to help us discern the false from the truth is not enough. Here are some ways any regular internet user can sort out fake news when receiving information:

1. Understand the repercussions of pressing the ‘Share’ button
Internet users will first need to understand possible repercussions of sharing information that has not been properly validated. Is this news actually true? Is this actually news or merely an opinion? What if it is not true? Will I cause an outbreak of conflict between groups of people by promoting this report? Before sharing, we need to consider the real world consequences that the spreading of any article will bring about.

2. Do not take things at face value; actively fact check
Users will also need to actively participate in fact-checking, by cross-checking the information they have received with multiple news sites and official media outlets. News on policies and regulations will definitely be announced on official media channels such as ministry websites. It is important that we do not accept information that is given to us as it is, but rather validating it with other legitimate news sources that are liable to editorial procedures and proper journalism conduct.

3. Monitor the language used in the article
More often than not, fake news are spread by writers who do not go through editorial judgements or are not professionally trained. This results in a transmission of news reports that can contain language errors. The language used in an article often reflects its credibility, thus analysing the way the report has been written is also a good way to pick out fake news or opinions disguised as news.

4. Sensationalised?
If exaggerating words are used, or if you get a sense that the article has been sensationalised, there is a high chance that the ‘facts’ reported in the article are either unproven speculations or half-truths. Articles tend to be sensationalised in order to gain attention in the stiff competition of news dissemination, especially on social media.

Fake news is not news. News based on people’s perceptions are merely subjective opinions and may not represent the thoughts of the majority or reflect the truth. As information dissemination is being increasingly simplified through the use of social media, we need to guard against the spread of news that can cause more harm to our social construct than just simple misunderstandings.




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