Gov’t right in tackling fake news but safeguards needed to prevent overreach

Gov’t right in tackling fake news but safeguards needed to prevent overreach
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“The truth is always trying to catch up with a fake news story.” – German Justice Minister.

Law Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament on Monday, 3 April, that the Government is reviewing its laws to better equip itself in dealing with the phenomenon of fake news.

Mr Shanmugam said the Government is “seriously considering” how it can combat such falsehoods, given that current laws may not be adequate in tackling the issue.

“They can cause harm to innocent Singaporeans; they can cause unnecessary alarm to the public; emergency resources may be diverted from legitimate emergencies and the reputation of honest Singapore businesses may be unfairly damaged,” the minister said in response to questions posed by several Members of Parliament (MP).

Current laws, he said, “are ineffective to stem the circulation of falsehoods, given how quickly they go viral today.”

“More needs to be done,” Mr Shanmugam said.

He said that the Government is not concerned with “trivial, factual inaccuracies, but with falsehoods that can cause real harm.”

“Even when the articles are not totally fake, they are highly misleading , and the whole purpose is to pervade falsehoods and mislead the public,” the minister explained.

In response to MP for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan who asked Mr Shanmugam if making “false and malicious allegations” against police will become a punishable offence, the minister cited an article on The Online Citizen website which had claimed that police had accused a wheelchair-bound man of motorcycle theft.

“The time has come for us not to simply rebut but to actually actively deal with it — so that the people who seek to profit from such conduct will actually feel the pain of it,” the minister said.

He cited examples from around the world and in Singapore where such fake news and fake stories had resulted in security agencies wasting time and effort to deal with these, and where real incidents of violence had also occurred because of malicious, phoney news.

In the United States, for example, a man went into a pizza restaurant and opened fire, after he had read a fake news story about how US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring.

Fake news was also thought to have helped Mrs Clinton’s rival, Donald Trump, win the elections last year as well.

In Singapore, Mr Shanmugam cited three websites which he said propagated falsehoods – the now defunct The Real Singapore website which was ordered to close by the government in 2015; States Times Review, which is managed by a Singaporean, Alex Tan, who is believed to be currently based in Australia; and All Singapore Stuff.

Mr Shanmugam said the fake news stories put out by these websites “can have serious real world consequences, if not quickly corrected.”

In other parts of the world, governments have threatened to take a tougher stance against platforms which allow fake news to be posted and propagated.

The German government, for example, has had to deal with a flood of such fake stories and hate speech online after the country saw an influx of more than a million immigrants, which led to many Germans spreading hatred against them. The German government is also concerned that the widespread nature of such news could also influence the elections, as it is did in the US last year.

In particular, it is targeting social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which it says are not doing enough to stamp out such stories.

“The German government has presented a draft law that would impose fines of up to €50m on social networks that fail to delete hate speech or fake news, in what amounts to the most draconian clampdown by a European country against Facebook,” the Financial Times reported last month.

“Too little criminal content is being deleted, and it’s not being deleted sufficiently quickly,” German Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, told reporters. “The biggest problem is and remains that the networks don’t take the complaints of their own users seriously enough.”

In the United Kingdom, the government there has convened a parliamentary committee to study “the widespread dissemination, through social media and the Internet” of phony news stories, and how to deal with them.

Damian Collins, chairman of the committee, said fake news is a “threat to democracy” that undermines public confidence in the media.

He said that there was a “responsibility to democracy” to ensure the social media platforms were not “being perverted to support the distribution of fake and malicious news.”

He also called on major tech companies to do more to prevent the spread of fake news on their platforms.

“Just as major tech companies have accepted they have a social responsibility to combat piracy online and the illegal sharing of content, they also need to help address the spreading of fake news on social media platforms,” he said.

According to news reports, the UK government “is considering whether fake news spreaders could be blocked or closed down, or genuine news outlets given a special verification mark.”

With mounting pressure from governments for it to do more to combat malicious content on its platform, Facebook announced late last year that it was taking the matter more seriously and is testing out various ways to eradicate fake news as much as possible.

“We have a responsibility to reduce the spread of fake news on our platform,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook vice president of product development, told The Washington Post in December.

One of the ways it is hoping to do so is to make it easier for people to flag such content.

“By clicking on the upper-right-hand corner of a post, users can report a story they think is suspicious,” Fortune magazine explains. “The company will also use its software to detect signs of fake news.”

“Once Facebook determines that its software or users have found a fake news story, a group of outside fact-checkers will examine it. If they determine the news is fake, Facebook will then flag the story as “disputed by third-party fact-checkers.” That notification will then be attached to the story within Facebook’s news feed.”

Such efforts to weed out fake news, however, are not foolproof, and in fact can be extremely hard to sustain, given that billions of postings are made online each day on Facebook alone.

The German digital trade association, Bitkom, for example, has said that any requirement to delete posts within 24 hours, as the new laws in Germany might require, on platforms that carry up to 1 billion posts a day “is utterly impossible to implement in operational terms” and would create a “permanent mechanism of censorship.”

While governments and social media platforms themselves are still feeling their way round the phenomenon and deciding how best to deal with it, here in Singapore it is perhaps easier to do so.

This is because of the relatively small number of (news) sites available, which would allow the authorities to quickly respond and deal with such fake news, as indeed it has done thus far.

Still, it is right that everyone who is interested in the dissemination of credible and genuine news should be concerned with the propagation of fake news by those who would profit from it, and who do not care for the real consequences which may result from this.

At the same time, however, there should also be safeguards against Government overreach which would result in a more severe situation of censorship than we already have here. This is said to have happened in the UK, where MPs who disliked certain news articles or online postings have accused them of being “fake news”.

Nonetheless, generally, the government is right to look into the phenomenon of fake news and how to eradicate it. Malicious and fake stories are a scourge and we are all better off without them.

We look forward to the details of any measures which the Government may eventually introduce to curb fake news.