The Minister of Law had made the point known: that Singapore, just like the rest of the world, has a problem with fake news. It is not known yet what action would be taken or what new laws would be implemented but we know that it would happen next year.
The cost of fake news to a country is an erosion of confidence; in a government, in a business and even as far as in life itself. This is bad. Democracy relies on a well informed electorate to function. Fake news is a direct attack on democracy and makes a mockery of the people, especially in an age when consumption of news takes place almost exclusively on the internet.
For the sake of national stability, there must be some form of governance and legal weapon to tackle the scourge of fake news. This is easier in concept than it is in practice. How do we define what is fake news to start with? How do we know that governments will not eventually smack every media creature with the fake news sledgehammer?
If a piece of news tells you about something that didn’t happen, or when an organisation does something when they don’t, that’s easy enough isn’t it? Not so. What about sites that are clearly satire? NewNation is an example of a site where they declare news is fake or in their words 50% fake – through the publication of fake news, they do appear to deliver a serious message.
If we attack these sites, then what about programs such as The Noose? All that is clearly fake. Satire is not easy to deal with, through simple minds it just looks like funny stuff but satire has been very useful in delivering a message and shaping society.
Being intentionally inaccurate or misleading isn’t a good method of weeding out fake news.
What about incomplete information? Sites like The States Times thrives on publishing news out of context; the statement maker did indeed say something, however the editors of the site isolated his/her statement and in so doing angered a readership.
Was that fake news? It wasn’t – it was merely incomplete. Mischevious, but not fake.
What about something like this:
There was a claim that an alleged crime took place – it can’t be verified, except through investigations by the police. Waiting till investigations are over might be a bit late to warn others, but at this point it is neither true nor false. Will the state machinery attack rumours like this?
We might also want to consider if State control is necessary even; we have legal weapons such as the tort of defamation and statutory protection against intentionally causing panic. We have the Undesirable Publications Act, the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, all of which can limit, or eradicate the effects of fake news.
However, many of these fake news providers have setup shop overseas and cannot be easily uncovered and even if their identities are known, are out of the reach of justice.
The weakness of fake news sites is their dependency on other internet giants. They rely extensively on Google, Facebook and Twitter to be their megaphone, without which the spread of their material is slower and less effective.
One way to stop their reach, is then to target the social media behemoths.
Germany has done just this. On the 5th of April 2017, Germany unveiled a Social Media Bill that subjects social media platforms to fines of up to 50 million euros if they do not remove criminal hatred and intentionally false news. They face sharp criticism for reasons of freedom of speech and it remains to be seen if this Bill will ever be passed. Singapore will not have this hurdle to cross, so this may be a means of regulation.
But if a direct censorship of the internet is not possible, perhaps an enforcement of ethics could be. The Media Development Authority has the ability to award and revoke licences (sometimes without the publisher even knowing it), could a similar system be made to enforce ethics upon publishers? Those who do not comply would have their licenses taken away and as a result, blocked from access.
The MDA could also invoke the use of a panel, such as the Censorship Board to give ratings to websites; PG/M18/R21 and so on to websites. Technology can then help to warn, or voluntarily block users before they access content.
Such a system would also be effective against sites being shared through WhatsApp, SMSes and emails. It would also address the problem of “state censorship” because these ratings and licences could be awarded through a committee, a panel or even crowdsourced nationwide.
It is not easy to regulate the internet, even if the purpose is to weed out fake and malicious news for the sake of social stability. An informed citizenry is the backbone of a healthy democracy and without free access to news, no matter how fake, ridiculous and contemptuous it is, the legitimacy of a government will then fall into question – a problem far worse than the fake news itself.
However, a country cannot give free reign to malicious intent and let the antagonists commit these acts without consequence. Although not yet defined as a crime, their work has costs on society; direct costs to be paid by taxpayers (because governments will then have to spend money to rectify the problems caused by fake news that has manifested) and indirect costs to national stability.
For now, there is one thing each of us can do – encourage our friends and family to stop sharing sensational news, always fact check and pay attention to which site it is that is writing the news.