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Fake news panel vs civil society: Not a very merry-go-round

When you go before a Select Committee hearing, remember that it is for the committee to ask questions of you, which members can frame in any way they want. You will have to answer, unless you say you refuse to answer. And you will have to answer the question as framed, and not segue into nuances and clarifications.

It was probably with this in mind that the civil society activists went before the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. They paused before answering most of the questions, probably wary of being led down a line of questioning that would solicit answers they were not prepared to give.

Reading the written submissions, the four people had a common thread which they were determined should surface at the hearing.

At the risk of over-simplifying the positions of Messrs Terry Xu of The Online Citizen, Ngiam Shih Tung of Maruah and Phd student Howard Lee and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, I would say the following were their common grounds.

  1. Legislation, if considered, should be last resort because there are already plenty of laws which can deal with harmful speech.
  2. There are many types of fake news – ranging from those that are shared by concerned citizens without malice, to those that incite violence.
  3. The G should “deal with’’ deliberate online fake news by engaging the perpetrators or putting up its own take on the matter so that readers can make an informed judgment .
  4. Most times, netizens themselves point out the falsity of statements, negating the need for the G to intervene in a sphere which cherishes freedom of expression.
  5. Unless the term “deliberate online falsehoods’’ (DOFs) was clearly defined, legal means would mean crimping freedom of expression in Singapore and could be abused by the government of the day.

They look plain enough, except that the committee has a lot of resources to call on,  such as evidence given by earlier witnesses who said that the current laws lack “speed, scope and adaptability’’, how deliberate disinformation campaigns can undermine national security and how the tech and social media companies themselves were dragging their feet over banning fake material despite demands to do so. Hence, shouldn’t the G have a tool which it can use that would be speedy, broad and adaptable, safeguard national security and compel the platforms to take down such DOFs?

Much of the three hours of questioning, mainly by MP Edwin Tong, who happens to be a Senior Counsel, were aimed at getting them to concede this point. There was plenty of arguing about definitions of fake news and the type of fake news that deserved sanction. Prof Thio Li-Ann’s testimony – that it was possible to define false in a legal sense – was frequently cited by the panel. So was Prof Goh Yi Han’s paper on the inadequacy of   current laws to deal with different types of fake speech.

Besides quoting these eminent law academics, the panel also referred to a Reach survey published yesterday, which said that 92 per cent of those surveyed wanted more effective laws on fake news. The civil society activists, parrying every blow that was levelled at them, probably felt that they were under siege.

Both Mr Tong and Dr Janil Puthucheary wanted to know why the acivists’ views were at odds with the experts and the majority of the survey participants. To her credit, Ms Han questioned the methodology of the Reach survey, and its questions, which would lead respondents to answer in a certain way.

I agree. The participants were asked about fake news – a term that so many people find hard to define and understand, except that it sounds bad. What image popped into their heads when they were popped the question and do they even know if there are laws in place that could deal with some of them?

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But beyond questioning the survey results, the activists were caught very much in a bind when they were posed examples of fake news and asked if they should be banned. Most were pretty egregious, like assertions that past US President Barack Obama criticized Christians  and that Indonesia’s Jokowi was a Christian. Then there were examples of online posts and sites filled with falsehoods about certain religious groups, which could lead to violence. The genious of the panel: These examples were raised by the British panel investigating the fake news phenomena, which Mr Tong recited to show that even the British MPs could not condone some types of expression and wanted them taken down. He also told of  how the  social media and tech companies responded to the British panel’s accusation of tardiness, by arguing that the offending item did not violate its community standards and how it was technically difficult to remove them.

Again, all this was to point to the question: Shouldn’t a government be given a tool to compel these companies to ban fake news?

It was a not a very merry-go-round. So I will try and shorten the discourse. The following is fake, but I hope it gives a fair representation of what happened.

Bear with me and follow this:

Q: If something is faked, should it be taken down?

A: No, because how do you know it’s fake?

Q: But it has been shown to be faked, so shouldn’t it be taken down?

A: No, it depends on who says it is faked and whether it incites violence.

Q: But it is faked and incites violence, so what do you do?

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A: You use existing laws or challenge them and give your side of the story.

Q: But what if it has already gone viral?

A: Going viral doesn’t mean that it has an impact on the people who read them.

Q: So on the chance that fake news would not give rise to violence, we do nothing?

A: No, we engage them, but who defines fake news and what are we talking about anyway?

And so everything revolves on what is true and false, who decides and whether there are variations of the truth. At one point, Mr Tong said that there was only “one truth’’, which led to the civil society activists speaking all at once until Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam intervened to give examples of facts and falsehoods.

The appearance of the civil society activists yesterday had been anticipated as a kind of showdown between the proponents and opponents of legislation. The panel members stressed several times that legislation was being considered as one of a suite of measures, but the other side was equally adamant that there was no need for new laws. For example, racially charged speech could be dealt with under the Sedition Act. Also, public opinion had, on occasion, led to fake news being pushed back. They piggybacked on the earlier testimony of Professor Cherian George, who warned that action against fake news could backfire on the G, and give the perpertrators ammunition to declare that they were denied freedom of speech.

And so on and so forth…

I have some sympathy for the activists who had to go through the insistent and tightly scoped questioning by Mr Tong. They were stymied or cut off whenever they started to raise examples in their favour. Still, they tried to hold up their ideological line: that even falsehoods with spurious allegations should be allowed unless they are clearly illegal under current laws. The counter-measure was engagement, they said, and having social media companies uphold their own code of practice or community standards.

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It was in the last hour or so that Mr Tong got into the specifics – and where things started looking  bad for the activists. In the case of Mr Xu, it was not his submission that Mr Tong grilled him on but his past action as editor of The Online Citizen. Mr Xu, who had earlier said that he was “not a journalist’’, was pinned down on TOC’s 2016 campaign on the suicide of student Benjamin Lim.

Mr Tong’s beef was that despite several police and parliamentary statements about an error in its reporting, TOC declined to revise its headlines. This, even though the mother who was the source of claims that police officers had descended on Benjamin’s school in tee-shirts with police emblazoned had said that she was wrong. Mr Xu’s reply was that TOC was “not in the habit of changing articles’’. Also, he himself had not received word from the police demanding a correction. Nor was he given CCTV footage to verify the claims of police.

I must say that it was pretty audacious of Mr Xu to give such a reply, which questioned the veracity of police and parliamentary statements. The only kind thing I can say in his favour is that he must have been frustrated by police’ consistent refusal to answer questions that he had posed to them in the past.

Ms Han, on the other hand, was put in a tight spot over her role in the Human Rights Watch report which the People’s Action Party Policy Forum had denounced before the Select Committee as deliberate falsehoods. The report, which interviewed 34 individuals on the state of civil rights in Singapore, was one of the planks in her written submission. She declined at first to say if she had been one of the 34 interviewed, arguing that it was irrelevant.

After the committee chairman Seah Kian Peng intervened, she decided to acknowledge that she was one of the interviewees. Mr Tong then drew her into specifics of the article which said that the incarceration of Alan Shadrake and Amos Yee were examples of curtailment of freedom of expression. I would be hard put to compress the details of the ding-dong over the two instances, except to say they both disagreed on everything.

There were two instances when Ms Han almost turned the tables on Mr Tong. She said she was surprised that the Human Rights Watch group had been asked to appear before the committee to defend its report, but not those who had described Operation Spectrum and Operation Coldstore as faked. She also said that while she would not welcome legislation on fake speech, she would welcome a Freedom of Information Act to promote more transparency and free flow of information.

But it was Mr Jolovan Wham, a social worker with Community Action Network, who got the short end of the stick, that is, a short five minutes before the committee. He was the last representor after a very long day which started at 10am. The five minutes was to get him to confirm that his view that there was no empirical evidence of online falsehoods in Singapore having a significant impact on the people.

Needless to say, he was quite cheesed off.

So what did we learn at the end of the day? I would venture this conclusion which I believe is shared by many: Legislation is afoot. Expect another bout of controversy when its draft is made public.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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