In trying to kill fake news, we lobotomise ourselves

Everything is fake until it is true. This sentence may sound glib but I think it is fundamental in epistemology. This is not to say that everything will eventually turn out to be true, but merely that everything we know as true was once easily dismissed as fake.

Truth does not emerge wholly formed. Truth is a consensus reached when empirical evidence and logical construction have attained a critical mass, enough to far outweigh any other plausible explanation. However, it can take a very long time for evidence to be found and the dots connected. Even then, ‘truth’ remains contingent on the evolving pattern of evidence.

It is curiosity and our need to be able to explain how things came to be that has driven humankind’s long march to knowledge. Everything that we know – about viruses, electricity, continental drift, black holes, Alzheimer’s disease – began as wild speculation. Somebody’s thoughts took a leap in the dark, but it was precisely that hypothesis that kick-started a search for evidence.


Dirty kitchen – fake news!

This process of getting to new knowledge is the same even in the most prosaic of circumstances. Let’s say five persons fall ill after dining at a restaurant. Typically, the authorities swing into action to inspect the kitchen and take samples for testing. By doing so, they are acting on an implicit assumption – that contaminated food is a likely explanation for the incident. Inspection and sample testing have become such a quick and standard response that it obscures the fact that preceding these actions was an initial hypothesis.

We may see the logical sequence better if the tests come back negative. The food was not contaminated. We’re back to the first question: what are the possibilities that can explain five people falling ill?

Perhaps someone may speculate: maybe the airconditioning ducts are dirty and bacteria is being blown out to people in the dining room.

But what if we had a culture where businesses are quick to sue people for making such speculative statements, accusing them of defamation by insinuating that they had neglected maintenance and jeopardised the health of their customers? What if we have a culture where the government is quick to prosecute people for spreading ‘fake news’?

Then those to whom this idea of dirty airflow occurred might choose to keep quiet and never voice the possibility. The result would be that this angle of inquiry is not pursued. We might never know why five people fell ill and our public health standards would be poorer for it.

It may be argued that a distinction surely exists between a speculative statement and an assertion, and so long as speculation is clearly framed as such, it should not be treated as defamatory or ‘fake news’. How can we prosecute someone for merely suggesting a possibility? Unfortunately, there have been several cases in Singapore where insinuation was read into even speculative statements and given much weight in court verdicts.


Sale and leaseback

My example above is one where the idea of heavy-handed action over tummy rumbles may seem far-fetched. Fair enough, but the process of discovery is the same in other, more serious, scenarios. Say, for example, a private corporation owned by a minister’s wife buys a building housing a statutory board at a remarkably low price, and then gets to lease it back to the statutory board at a very profitable rental rate. Immediately, some people will form a highly unflattering hypothesis, and are likely to exchange thoughts in the hope that through collective action, sleuthing can be done to discover if the hypothesis is true.

Doing so would be exercising our uniquely human characteristics: spotting patterns, intellectually connecting the dots, seeing possible cause and effect, tickling our curiosity and acting socially to sate that curiosity.

In Singapore however, instead of revelling in such behaviour, we may be punished for it.


The powerful as arbiters of truth

What is especially dangerous is the tacit assumption that the government is the chief determinant of truth and falsity. Plenty of laws already give the government the power to order a take-down of webpages. Nor should we forget the coercive power they have over reporters and editors in mainstream media to prefer the government’s version over others’.

There are many examples in history of power being used to promote one particular narrative and suppress all others as fake news.

Galileo Galilei was punished for heresy by the Roman Church when he said that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Today, we know who was right.

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, the editor of Sarawak Report, had an arrest warrant against her issued by the Malaysian Police in 2015. She had exposed the huge 1MDB corruption scandal. Today we know that the ‘fake news’ in Sarawak Report was nothing but the gory truth.

Closer to home, we have the instances of Archie Ong, Piragasam Singaravelu and Tan Kiat Noi sued by the National Kidney Foundation (1997 to 1999) for allegations about financial abuses at the charity. In 2003, the City Harvest Church – one of the largest churches then in Singapore — took action against Roland Poon for questioning how funds were spent to promote the music career of the pastor’s wife. Years later, they would be vindicated as dirt poured out of NKF and the church, but by then they had each suffered large personal losses since they could not immediately prove their allegations and fight off their well-resourced and powerful opponents.

How many other horrors remain undiscovered because the powerful can intimidate the small guy? And still we want to add to the laws?

The coming fake news law is a kind of lobotomy on all Singaporeans. If we are socialised not to wonder, intellectual growth will be stunted. People learn to wait for information which they are conditioned to accept at face value rather than think for themselves. These are hardly the best traits for success in any kind of world, let alone the innovation economy that’s already here.

Some readers might not be persuaded by the above argument. Humans are hard-wired to be curious, talkative and social, they may say. Laws or the social environment that laws make aren’t going to change our very fundamental natures.

I am not so sanguine about human psychology. I have seen enough religious fundamentalists to realise that people can be socialised not to question even when something illogical or absurd is staring them in the face. Our usual inquisitiveness can be shut down. And the destruction of social trust among citizens that results from an arbitrary and punitive state can mean that even when individuals privately speculate and wonder, they may be too fearful to communicate among themselves. The collective action that could unearth evidence and demolish a lie may be stillborn.

Counter-intuitive though it may be, speculation is a good thing. It is the seed that yields knowledge. Kill the seeds and the field will be barren.

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