How will Singapore solve its problem with fake news

Fake news threatens the social harmony in ASEAN. Singapore is particularly at risk. The government seeks a solution.

Editorial

Singapore is looking at ways to counter the online ‘fake news’ epidemic. The city-state launched public hearings to explore legislation to tackle the issue. A 10-person parliamentary committee will hear from 164 people. Among the 164 are academics, social media professionals and activists. Parliamentary deputy speaker Charles Chong will chair the committee. The committee will present its findings later this year.

Fake news poses a threat to Singapore and the rest of ASEAN

The online spread of falsehoods can have far-reaching consequences. ASEAN is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures all living side-by-side. Fake news can stoke ethnic tensions and trigger an ethnic crisis.

In Myanmar, false information online is fuelling the Rohingya crisis. Fake news has played a role in stirring up anti-Rohingya sentiment.

Singapore has also been affected. In 2015, a false story stoked ethnic tensions. It claimed a Filipino family caused a commotion during Thaipusam celebrations. The story prompted a xenophobic backlash against the Filipino community online.

As a financial hub, Singapore is particularly at risk. Fake news about a crash in a market could prompt an actual market crash. The spread of fake news in the financial sector would have very severe repercussions.

Fake news is abundant

ASEAN’s internet and mobile penetration have risen rapidly in recent years. Between 2016 and 2017 the number of social media accounts in ASEAN rose by 31%. However, digital literacy rates did not increase at the same rate. Even Singapore does not enjoy the same digital literacy rates of other developed countries in the West. Other ASEAN nations are much further behind. Large segments of the ASEAN population are therefore unable to detect false information online.

This becomes even more concerning when you consider how often users find fake news. A 2017 government poll estimated 75% of Singaporeans read fake news occasionally. 25% of respondents confessed they had shared something they later found to be fake news.

How do you solve the problem of fake news?

Fake news is difficult to legislate against. Any attempt to restrict access to web pages can be interpreted as an attack on freedom of speech. Politicians can also manipulate the law to quash political dissent.

This is occurring in Laos. Under article 9, spreading false information about Laos and its government is prohibited. However, the Laotian government has used this law to arrest its critics.

The same problem exists in Indonesia. The government arrested three individuals for spreading disinformation online under the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) law. However, under the same law, it recently arrested a woman for sharing a defamatory meme. The meme was of House of Representatives Chairman Setya Novanto.

Non-legislative measures would leave less margin for abuse

In Malaysia, the government established a website to debunk false information. The portal archives fake news articles and counters disinformation. The Malaysian government is also teaching civilians digital literacy skills. This will help them identify fake stories online.

In Singapore, government polls show half of the population cannot identify fake news. A digital literacy program would help the public identify fake news.

Increasing access to information would do more to fight fake news

When governments limit press freedom, there are fewer outlets to counter fake news. Singapore ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. A good place to start in the fight against fake news would be to address this issue.

Source: RSF

Easing press restrictions would allow non-governmental players to tackle fake news as well. In Europe think tanks, blogs and the traditional media all counter fake news stories. But with limited press freedom, there is little incentive for the media to help. A better relationship with media outlets could bring them into the fake news fight. A government-media partnership would be an effective way to police disinformation online.

Singapore is in a good position to expand the fight against fake news to the media. It has two very popular and credible media outlets. The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao are both respected as credible news sources. With an expanding online readership, these are perfectly placed to counter fake news.

Source: The Straits Times

Increased collaboration with social media sites should also be a priority

More collaboration with social media firms would provide another weapon against fake news. Stronger governmental ties may prompt Facebook and Twitter to be more forthcoming in taking down inaccurate content.

The fight against fake news is an opportunity to increase press freedom. It is an opportunity to strengthen ties with social media platforms. It is also an opportunity to increase civilian digital literacy. The fight against fake news could lead to some positive changes in Singapore and the region. But only if the government takes a non-legislative approach.

On the other hand, a legislative approach could have the opposite effect. It could stifle the press and lead to more governmental powers to silence critics. It could remove democratic spaces and arenas for critical speech. This would lead to consequences far more damaging than the fake news epidemic itself.