Fake alarms from fake news


As the contestation over the “alternate facts” so beloved by the Trump administration crescendoes — as it surely will over the coming months — the Singapore government will see more opportunities to import the same arguments into Singapore as a means of heightening censorship. The twist will be that our government will claim that their “facts” are facts, whilst their detractors’ views and statements are “fake news” or falsehoods, conveniently swapping the positions of government and opposition in the American debate.

On 4 December 2016, there were two strange articles in the Straits Times, strange because neither of them fully referenced which event(s) they were reporting on. They seem to have come out of thin air, almost as if someone waved a wand saying, “We must create an issue out of this even if it has not been one before.”  The articles gave the impression of a brazen attempt to take an issue that was topical in the US,  and plant it here. Now, whose purpose would doing so serve?

The first of the two articles was headlined “Facing up to fake news: Why we should be worried“. Citing a few examples of untrue postings on American social media, it said:

The problem with these stories? They were all fake.

Yet, they were among the most popular stories according to Facebook shares, outperforming those of fact-checked, mainstream news.

This has prompted concern that fake news – overwhelmingly weighted in Mr Trump’s favour – had a hand in propelling the Republican nominee to the highest office in the United States.

Fake news is an issue in Singapore too, with several examples catching the attention of the police in the last few years alone.

— Straits Times, 4 December 2016, Facing up to fake news: Why we should be worried

Notice how deftly it turns the reader’s fears to Singapore. Much of the rest of the article was about how dangerous fake news can be, with serious consequences on religious tolerance and social peace. We see the article ratcheting up the perceived danger level. Concluding the story, it referred to ruling party Member of Parliament Zaqy Mohamad,

While Singaporeans seem to be more discerning and less trigger-happy in sharing fake news compared to the early 2010s, MP Zaqy Mohamad thinks that such bogus stories still pose a threat to security and harmony here.

Says Mr Zaqy, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Communications and Information: “All it takes is one person and one message.

“One bomb threat could cause panic. One comment could create the impression that it’s okay to bash foreigners.

“They add up, and then you may end up with a real situation where people think that such views are common and okay.

“If that’s the case, what becomes of Singapore?”

— Straits Times, 4 December 2016, Facing up to fake news: Why we should be worried

The other article, by the same journalist Rachel Au-Yong, was headlined “How to fight back against the scourge of fake news.” About half the article took the tone of how inadequate laws can be trying to deal with such a situation — one begins to worry what exactly this point is leading to. Fortunately, much of the rest of the article stressed the need of readers to be discerning. Quoting lawyer Eugene Quah,

There are good reasons not to put in place laws to criminalise fake news, Mr Quah says.

First, this could inadvertently clamp down on journalists, who might “second-guess themselves”, especially while reporting preliminary information on rapidly developing situations.

Second, it is difficult in some cases to distinguish between facts and opinions, he adds.

A third reason is that it is human nature to tell stories, which may get embellished in the retelling. “Enacting laws to criminalise fake news would then expose a wide class of persons to potential prosecution.”

Fourth, criminalising fake news means we would lose satire, humour and artistic expression, too. It could also appear to be censorship, “which always leaves a bad taste”, says PRecious Communications managing director Lars Voedisch.

— Straits Times, 4 Dec 2016, How to fight back against the scourge of fake news

The last few days, the issue of the misuse of the Protection from Harassment Act has come to the fore. The background is currently well known, but for the benefit of future readers, I should make a quick reference to this story in Yahoo Singapore: Appeal court rules against Mindef in landmark Protection from Harassment Act case. The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) had lost the case.

Mindef was appealing a High Court ruling from December 2015 that the ministry cannot use the Act to make socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) remove statements made by inventor Ting Choon Meng over a patent rights dispute.

In a written judgement, Judges Phang and Chao said that Mindef had failed to cross the threshold requirement in proving that the government is a “person” under Section 15 of the PHA.

“We do not think that the applicant has demonstrated that it is just and equitable to grant an order against either Dr Ting or The Online Citizen.”

In addition, the Court said that “Mindef was anything but a helpless victim. It is a government agency possessed of significant resources and access to media channels.”

— Yahoo news, 16 Jan 2017, Appeal court rules against Mindef in landmark Protection from Harassment Act case

The Workers’ Party issued a statement on 22 January 2017 warning the government against trying to amend POHA to include government institutions as “persons” within the meaning of the Act.

The Ministry of Law promptly responded to this statement, saying the government was not suing Ting Choon Meng and TOC for harassment but for spreading false information.  However, the Workers’ Party noticed  a few sly omissions in the ministry’s statement and shot back a day later. In its second statement, the party said:

The Ministry of Law stated that it does not intend to amend the POHA to protect itself from harassment. We welcome this statement.

However the Ministry has not stated if it will amend the POHA or introduce new laws to protect itself from false information.

The MinLaw reply neglected to mention that the Workers’ Party’s original statement said:

As the Court noted in the case of MINDEF, the Government possesses significant resources and access to media channels that it can use to address false statements.  (our emphasis)

In fact, MinLaw’s entire statement on 22 January focused on the distinction between false information and harassment, splitting hairs and diverting attention with bad insinuations about the Workers’ Party’s good faith in raising this issue.

— Workers’ Party press statement, 23 Jan 2017

Now, let’s look at what the Law ministry actually said:

The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions.  At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making.  Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention.

The Workers’ Party claims to be a champion of transparency; if this were so, it should welcome the ability of the Government and others to put a stop to falsehoods.  There can be no objection to this unless the Workers’ Party sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods.

The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.  The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.

— Ministry of Law press statement. 22 Jan 2017

Feel the chill now? That’s what they’re doing: latching on to a trending issue in the US and using it as a lever to load up on censorship here.



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