Friday 12 July 2013

Online sites have responsibility to give accurate info: Observers

This is especially so during crises, as rumours spread fast and cause anxiety
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 11 Jul 2013

BLOGGERS and websites have a responsibility to give accurate information, especially in times of crisis, observers said in response to Government criticism of those who spread false information during the recent haze.

On Monday in Parliament, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said some had caused unnecessary anxiety with their inaccurate posts. He cited examples in his reply to MPs' questions on misleading and unverified information online on the haze which could be harmful.

These included a screenshot showing wrong PSI information; blogger Ravi Philemon quoting his friend, alleging that N95 masks being brought into Singapore were not for the public; and The Real Singapore website falsely attributing an article to PAP MP Irene Ng.

Many observers agreed it was right to call out such behaviour.

Like many other connected societies, Singapore is not immune to false information spreading swiftly and having serious consequences, they said.

"In a national crisis, to put out false rumours is as severe as a bomb hoax: it can cause public panic," said MP Zaqy Mohamad, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications and Information.

While Singaporeans are generally discerning about what they read online, "in times of uncertainty or crisis, discernment may very well give way to the search for misinformation that confirms or validates how they make sense of a difficult situation", said Mr Eugene Tan, Nominated MP and associate professor at Singapore Management University.

Prominent websites and bloggers can have thousands of readers, making it easier for rumours to spread easily from person to person.

"There's a risk when untruths become more credible as (they are) repeated online by several sources," said MP Baey Yam Keng, vice-chairman of the GPC for Communications and Information.

Readers expressed similar views on The Straits Times Facebook page.

"As an opinion leader (with) many followers... there is a need to think twice before posting anything online," said a Mr Edmund Mong.

The onus is on bloggers and websites to exercise "some measure of editorial judgment and not just pass on any rumour", said Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre. If a post turns out to be false, "the responsible thing is to take it down or correct it immediately".

The Government can also be quicker in disseminating comprehensive information, said former nominated MP Calvin Cheng. While it made an effort during the haze to to clear up misperceptions about the haze by using websites such as Emergency 101 and Factually, these came out a few days after the haze reached record levels, he noted.

But others argued that the intention of the posting also matters in deciding how culpable one is in spreading false information.

While Mr Philemon's erroneous post risked stirring panic and causing unhappiness, some observers, such as blogger Siew Kum Hong, felt he did it out of a desire to inform. He did not "seek to sensationalise" the unverified information, said Mr Siew.

On the other hand, they said the article that The Real Singapore website attributed to Ms Ng appeared to be borne out of mischief.

The identity of the website's editors is unknown, but the site claims to be 50 per cent news, and runs articles mocking Singapore, its institutions and leaders without much backing.

Former nominated MP Zulkifli Baharuddin said that while those out to make mischief should be punished severely, "it's different if someone passed on information based on ignorance".

Under the Telecommunications Act, people who transmit a message known to be false or fabricated can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for three years, or given both punishments. The penalties are higher if it is a bomb hoax.

Some have urged that this law be used only as a last resort.

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan suggested setting up an independent fact-checking panel to act as an ombudsman, with powers to call out netizens who publish false information and discipline them.

"The Government can sometimes come across as heavy-handed, which ends up lessening people's trust. It may be better to have a non-partisan panel, one with buy-in from all citizens," she said.

When I answered the question on online rumours in Parliament on Monday, I decided to cite specific individuals and...
Posted by Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Rumour-mongers named to be fair to online community'
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 11 Jul 2013

MINISTER for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim explained last night why he named individuals and websites that spread rumours when speaking in Parliament on Monday.

He did so to be fair to the online community. "Otherwise, the majority in the online community may be inadvertently associated with spreading rumours. That would be unfair, because they were not spreading rumours," he wrote in a Facebook post. He also said that he had mentioned many examples of Singaporeans using the Internet to do good and clarify doubts.

Dr Yaacob was referring to his reply on Monday to questions from MPs on the online rumours and false information some netizens had spread about the haze, causing unnecessary anxiety and doubt.

Among the examples he cited was blogger Ravi Philemon's post, in which he quoted a friend saying that nine million N95 masks being brought into Singapore were not meant for the public.

Dr Yaacob last night laid out the sequence of events in Mr Philemon's case.

"The upshot of Ravi's post is that the Government announcement the day before is not true. But what is his basis for suggesting so? The truth is, he had no basis for his assertion," the minister said.

Mr Philemon has since said on his blog he felt it was his responsibility to highlight "at least some of the feelings and sentiments of the general public".

Dr Yaacob said he was happy to learn that Mr Philemon had driven to Johor Baru to buy masks to distribute to the needy. "But let's be clear - doing good offline does not mean one is excused from acting responsibly online," he added.

Blogger says he was seeking clarification over N95 masks
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2013

BLOGGER Ravi Philemon yesterday again defended his decision to post an unverified allegation that none of the Government's nine million N95 masks was for the public during the haze.

He said he had made the posting to clarify things as the Government's assurances about the masks "did not tally with the situation on the ground".

The statement released yesterday, marking his second bid to defend himself, came after Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday said the blogger had "no basis for his assertion".

Dr Yaacob, in a Facebook post, pointed out that Mr Philemon had posted the allegation about the masks being kept out of the public's reach after the Government had announced it would be giving out one million N95 masks free to lower-income households.

Yesterday, too, the originator of the allegation identified himself, explaining how he came to hear the claim.

He identified himself in a public Facebook post as Victor Chen Guan Rong. He gave no further details about himself but said he received the information from his father, who in turn got it from phone calls he made to pharmacies, medical suppliers and clinics on June 21.

His posting, the one that Mr Philemon reposted on his wall, said: "Yes the nine million masks are coming into Singapore only on Monday. But none will be for the public, the entire batch will be under exclusive control by the G (Government) and all distributions (sic) of the masks will be under the tightest of scrutiny".

Mr Chen wrote that all medical supplies distributors made similar remarks and that no retailer would have stock circulating because of "tight control implemented".

In explaining himself yesterday, Mr Philemon said that two days before his post, the media had reported that the Health Ministry said there were enough masks and pharmacies would have fresh stock by that evening.

The next day, on June 21, there were reports that some pharmacies did not have stock of the masks. Mr Philemon did not mention that other pharmacies had stock and had queues of people buying them.

The Government made the announcement about masks to be given away free on June 21.

Mr Philemon made the posting about the masks being kept away from the public in the wee hours of June 22.

In the afternoon of the same day, it was reported that free masks were being sent to grassroots groups for distribution to poor families.

Mr Philemon said he posted the allegation "with the intention of not asserting, but getting more information on that topic".

"As ordinary citizens like me are not in a position to verify what is truth and what is not, it is not irresponsible of me to highlight such sentiments so that the Government can appropriately clarify them," he said.

The issue of Mr Philemon's posting was first raised in Parliament on Monday, when Dr Yaacob cited it as an example of online rumour-mongering that caused unnecessary public anxiety during the haze.

Social media 'celebrities' have responsibilities too

THE response by prominent blogger Ravi Philemon that he was merely reposting a friend's comment - that nine million masks would be brought into Singapore, but none was for the public - suggests that social media "celebrities" like him are still coming to terms with the public influence they wield ("Some cause anxiety by spreading rumours"; yesterday).

That such personalities can shape public opinion is a foregone conclusion, judging by the commercial attention given to such platforms for promotions and marketing.

Instead of simply reposting the comment, Mr Philemon could have shown greater maturity and responsibility by considering whether his friend's comment was factual, and how reposting it on his Facebook page would affect public opinion.

Amid panic over the haze situation, surely reposting such a comment would feed the public frenzy. Was there any consideration of how the wording could cast aspersions on the Government and potentially sow public discord?

If bloggers want to be public figures, then they should discharge a level of public responsibility as they are no longer simply individuals giving opinions.

Taking personal responsibility to distribute N95 masks bought from Malaysia, though a laudable effort, does not absolve

Mr Philemon of being less than responsible in his actions.

Alvin Tan Kia Seng
ST Forum, 10 Jul 2013

'Seeking clarifications' online a disturbing trend

I BELIEVE blogger Ravi Philemon's explanation to be bona fide, and that rather than having malicious intent, he was putting the allegation - that none of the Government's nine million N95 masks was for the public - into the public domain for the Government to clarify the issue ("Blogger says he was seeking clarification over N95 masks"; last Friday).

That said, his actions were part of a rather bewildering and disturbing trend: that of questioning the veracity of government statements during a national crisis, and the belief

that it is better to clarify uncertainties over the Internet rather than with government agencies.

It is wholly acceptable in a democracy to question the Government's version of events in politics. The furore over the cleaning of Bedok hawker centres is an example.

However, in times of national crisis, doing so is not only disturbing but also very dangerous.

During the haze, people were going online and giving their own theories about air pollution, instead of believing the statements issued by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Worse, there were conspiracy theories that the Government was purposely lying to the people about pollution levels, and that it was unwilling to give up-to-date Pollutant Standards Index readings, either through ineptness or as a cover-up.

Instead of trusting the NEA experts, people thought it better to rely on information on the Internet put out by bloggers, who have neither the expertise nor the data to be giving advice. This is absurd.

As the Government had already given the assurance that N95 masks would be made available, the right thing to do would be to believe it was trying its best to get the masks out to us, even if we were facing shortages on the ground.

Instead of putting out allegations on the Internet to be clarified, one should have directed the claims to the NEA, because the viral nature of the Internet means that such untruths could spark further panic and mask-hoarding, making the Government's job even harder.

In a national crisis, our Government has never been known to lie. It is ridiculous to think it would start now.

This time, it is merely the haze, which has since abated. If there is a terrorist attack or a viral outbreak, and people turn to the Internet for conspiracy theories and advice instead of listening to and trusting the Government, the consequences could be unimaginable.

ST Forum, 16 Jul 2013

'Seeking clarifications' online: Blogger replies

I THANK Mr Calvin Cheng for his letter yesterday ("'Seeking clarifications' online a disturbing trend") expressing confidence that my last press statement was bona fide.

However, he deems clarifying uncertainties over the Internet rather than with government agencies a disturbing and dangerous trend. His observation of such a "trend" may not be accurate.

In responding to parliamentary questions on the haze, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who heads an inter-ministerial task force to tackle the haze, said visits to the National Environment Agency's website peaked at five million on June 21, when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 401.

This evidently shows that during a national crisis, people still turn to government agencies for information.

It is understandable for people to express their frustration, both offline and online, when they were unable to get their hands on N95 masks when the PSI reading was at its highest, though the Government had promised the day before that there were enough stocks.

Such expressions of frustration and sharing of personal experiences on social media should not be mistaken for turning to the Internet for advice.

In 2009, former deputy prime minister and home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said that in a national crisis, bloggers and website moderators could help ease public concerns.

I agree with Mr Wong. But for these people to be able to play this role, they must first be engaged by the relevant government agencies.

At the height of the haze crisis, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured the people that daily press briefings would be held to update them on the situation.

If the Government, like Mr Cheng, feels that during a crisis, the trend now is for the public to clarify uncertainties over the Internet rather than with the relevant government agencies, then perhaps bloggers and website moderators should be invited to such press briefings as well.

Ravi Philemon
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2013

Blogger's 'explanations' are astonishing

MR RAVI Philemon ("'Seeking clarifications' online: Blogger replies"; Wednesday) continues to puzzle all who are trying to understand him.

In the early hours of June 22, at a time of public concern over the haze situation, Mr Philemon posted on Facebook that nine million N95 masks would arrive on Monday (June 24) but none will be for the public.

He ended his posting with a teaser, asking: "Anyone has an idea who the 9 million masks will go to first?"

The truth of the matter is as stated by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen the day before (June 21): First, that the Ministry of Health had sufficient stock of N95 masks. Second, that the Government would be pushing N95 masks to retail outlets, such as NTUC FairPrice, for public sale. And third, that the Government would be distributing one million masks to some 200,000 needy households.

With his post, Mr Philemon appeared to be insinuating the following: That the Government was not telling the truth, that it hoards the masks for the privileged, and that it does not care for the public.

At a time of public concern over the haze and the availability of N95 masks, great alarm could have been caused when such an irresponsible posting is made and shared.

The Government had to move quickly to extinguish the rumour when it was brought to our attention by concerned members of the public.

Instead of taking responsibility, Mr Philemon has attempted to explain away his deed.

He claims that the post was not widely read. He even makes the astonishing claim that he had actually helped the Government by making it clarify the rumour that he had spread.

Mr Philemon must stop explaining away his deed, recognise the potential impact of irresponsible postings, especially in times of crises, and act accordingly henceforth.

Peer M. Akbur
Director, Corporate Relations
Ministry of Communications and Information
ST Forum, 20 Jul 2013

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