The reporter pointed out to me that the survey found that “35% of respondents believe that all, if not most, of information on the Internet is true,” and asked what I thought of that.
I clicked the hyperlink he had provided to the survey results and was momentarily perplexed. To me, the graph seemed quite normal, with a bunching of answers around the middle. The vast majority thought that information on the internet was partly or mostly true — which, if you’re an internet user, would seem like a very reasonable assessment. So why was the reporter’s question phrased the way it was?
Taking the data from a table in the report and converting them into bar graphs:
These figures came from the Consumer experience study 2011 commissioned by Media Development Authority (MDA), and conducted by the Singapore Internet Research Centre, Nanyang Technological University.
However, the reporter’s question was led by the headline that MDA gave to the above data — the headline screamed “About 35% of respondents believe that most or all of the information . . . are true” — and which implied a wholly different way of looking at the results. Presented graphically (by me), this was how the bureaucrats saw the data:
That’s a rather strange way of slicing the data, isn’t it?
The remark tells us less about the data than about the mindset. It suggests a mindset that holds as incontrovertible truth the following dictum: If internet users trust most (or, in the case of a few respondents, all) of what they read as truthful, these people must have taken leave of good sense and reality. Just as evolution never happened, this cannot possibly be. The internet just is not truthful. How can people believe that??? And so many of them!!!
Here’s justification then for a new campaign towards “media literacy”. Singaporeans must be taught to stop believing the internet.
As for television . . .
Yet, even higher percentages believe television news and documentaries “show a true picture of what really happened”. Here is the relevant page from the report put out by the MDA (click image for a larger version):
Of viewers aged 15 to 29, about 60 – 70 percent of them thought that documentaries and news on TV were believably true. This, if you would please note, is nearly twice as high as the 35% who thought internet information to be mostly or wholly true. Yet the headline that the MDA gave to the 60 – 70 percent result sounded downcast, describing these age cohorts as “relatively more critical”.
So, 60 – 70 percent holding TV news as true is disappointing to the authorities, but 35% holding internet information as mostly true is shockingly wrong.
Doesn’t this tell us more about warped government minds than about ordinary people? If there’s anything to be shocked about, it is that 60 – 70 percent of viewers think so highly of TV — and that’s the lower end, with higher percentages among older adults.
The most annoying thing about the report published by the MDA is how (and the above is just one example) it is presented as pre-digested information, with no link to the survey data, and no discussion of its own limitations. It tells us for example that it was a face-to-face survey based on 1,030 respondents “aligned” with 2010 census profile. Then there were also focus group discussions. But it does not discuss margins of error, or the possible skewing from face-to-face interviews as opposed to anonymous surveys, or declare which results came from surveys and which were drawn from focus groups discussions. Nor does it tell us when exactly the survey was conducted. This is important because there were several key events in 2011, e.g. general election, presidential election, that would have affected the context.
Much of the information was presented in the form of bar graphs, with no notation as to the precise number or percentage represented by any bar. See for example, this one (click for a larger version) that I have taken from a page in the report:
In the above graph, the headline focuses on a relatively minor detail, represented by the short blue bars. It does not capture the essence represented by the taller red and green bars. Furthermore, look at the four bars relating to the age group 60 – 65 years. They do not add up to 100 percent. This cries out for explanation, but there is none.
In the first set of figures behind the bar graph that I drew for the top of this article, there is a mysterious statement saying 13 percent or 14 percent “N.A.” with no explanation what N.A. means or why.
This kind of cavitied presentation, dumbing down and slanted commentary does not leave a good impression.
A few days ago, the Singapore government launched a new section on its official website intended to provide “answers to hot topics as part of its ‘myth busting’ initiatives”, reported AsiaOne (Source). According to a spokesman for the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), the section, called Factually, is meant to be “a convenient, central and credible platform” for a summary of key facts on various policies.
Going by the kind of reports put out by the MDA such as described above, I think they need to work on their own credibility.