Friday, 30 March 2018

Public Hearings on Fake News: 27 - 29 March 2018

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Public Hearings
- 14 - 16 March 2018
- 22 - 23 March 2018


Day 6: 27 Mar 2018






No need for new laws to tackle fake news, say activists
They call instead for greater public access to information and more media literacy
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

There is no need for new legislation to deal with online fabrications, said activists and content producers, as they called for greater public access to information and improving media literacy.

Their call sparked a long debate yesterday when four of them appeared before the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, as one of its members, Mr Edwin Tong, sought for over five hours to convince them otherwise.

Yesterday was the sixth day of public hearings, which have so far seen 51 representatives speak since March 14. The last hearing is slated to take place tomorrow.


Mr Tong pointed out that previous witnesses - including academics and legal experts - had identified gaps in existing legislation and acknowledged that stronger laws, along with a slew of other measures such as public education, would help tackle the scourge of fake news.


He and fellow committee member Janil Puthucheary also noted that a poll by government feedback unit REACH found that about nine in 10 respondents felt there should be more effective laws to require the removal or correction of false reports.


But the panel of speakers - made up of Maruah vice-president Ngiam Shih Tung, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu and graduate student Howard Lee - remained largely unswayed.




The four witnesses had in their written submissions argued that existing laws are sufficient to deal with online falsehoods.

Human rights group Maruah cautioned that any new laws could stifle free speech and be used to stifle legitimate, dissenting views.

Mr Xu noted that countries cited in the Green Paper on online falsehoods as introducing new laws are doing so because their existing laws "are very liberal" compared with Singapore's, "which cover all aspects of free speech".

The witnesses suggested instead more media literacy and political education, as well as a Freedom of Information Act.



Yesterday, Mr Tong asked the panel how online falsehoods, hate groups that have cropped up on social media and offensive cartoons, among other things, can be countered without new legislation.

Ms Han said repeatedly that she was against new laws, including those to compel technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter to take down content.

But if a deliberate online falsehood has the potential to undermine national security or social cohesion, should not something be done about it, asked Mr Tong.

"Because the flip side of what you are saying is that we can't do anything about it," he said.

Disagreeing, Ms Han said Singapore has sufficient legislation to deal with such falsehoods.



Committee member Pritam Singh later asked Ms Han if she would accept that an elected government could have powers to compel content sites to remove posts quickly, if the red line of incitement to violence is crossed.

This would not be a broad sweeping power that is activated all the time, but in specific instances.

Replying, Ms Han said: "We have a lot of laws that... even if they are not specifically about targeting falsehoods - can actually be used in the instances of the harms that we think will be triggered by these falsehoods."

Mr Singh, using the Arabic word for "forbidden", then asked: "So, conceptually it is not haram to have a policy that you actually have to take down something?"

Ms Han replied: "I would urge that to be the very last resort, but if we already have those powers, I would say we don't need more. Or we don't need to double up."

The hearing, which started at 10am, drew to a close only after 9pm, with the last of the day's witnesses, activist Jolovan Wham, getting only five minutes in front of the panel after a seven-hour wait.

Mr Wham had argued in his written submission that current safeguards are sufficient to deal with fake news because the issue is not a major one here.















Should an alleged falsehood be taken down?
The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

An exchange on whether alleged falsehoods that wound racial or religious feelings should be taken down took place yesterday between freelance journalist Kirsten Han and members of a parliamentary committee.

It involved a 2014 Facebook post about an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men in Myanmar, which was reported by a local news site. The post, which was later proven to be false, went viral, and armed Buddhist mobs filled the streets of Mandalay. Here is an edited excerpt of the exchange.



Ms Han: Even if we assume it is false, I do not see how, at this point, compelling a takedown would necessarily fix the problem, because this is playing on such deep-rooted social divisions that, by the time you get to the incitement of people with swords running around in the streets, the actual existence of the post is irrelevant. The takedown of it will not defuse this. It might... backfire and make people go, Facebook is deliberately oppressing us, it has something to hide, they don't want this rape to go out, even if the rape is false, and might lead to more inflamed tensions.

Dr Janil Puthucheary: So, you are more worried that taking it down will cause greater harm and inflame passions more. You will prefer for this to be left to circulate. Is that your position?

Ms Han: No, what I am saying is in the Singapore context, we have laws like the Sedition Act that could tackle inciting disharmony between racial and religious groups.



Dr Janil: That is not the question I am asking... I am asking (whether) your characterisation is: It is better to leave it up there and allow further hatred, further violence, further confusion to spread because you are more worried about the backfire effect than the further harm that disinformation does? We haven't worked out how we will take it down yet, but I am asking: Do you want it taken down?

Ms Han: No.

Dr Janil: For the reasons I have stated?

Ms Han: No, my position would be that we should explore other measures and use the existing laws that we already have, but I would not take that down.





Call made for Freedom of Information Act in Singapore
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

There should be a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore so that citizens can put in requests for data from the Government, freelance journalist Kirsten Han said at the Select Committee hearing on online deliberate falsehoods yesterday.

This can empower people to do their own fact-checking and conduct their own analysis, which can strengthen public trust, she said.

It can also tackle the issue of fake news and disinformation campaigns, which can thrive in an information vacuum, she said in her written submissions to the committee.




Committee member and MP Edwin Tong quizzed Ms Han on various aspects of her suggestions, from the law's efficacy in fostering trust to potential abuse by businesses and national security concerns, raising examples from several countries.

Mr Tong noted former British prime minister Tony Blair's comments in 2011 that the law, which fully went into force under his government's watch in 2005, has "hindered progress in our trusting of politicians", even though it has achieved greater transparency.

To this, Ms Han said it was not the Freedom of Information Act that undermined trust in the British government, but rather Mr Blair's government's complicity in the Iraq War.

Mr Tong then turned to Australia as an example, saying that its senior public servants called for freedom of information laws to be amended to conceal sensitive advice to ministers in 2016. He also cited a poll last year which found that the most frequent users of such a law in the United States were businesses, which may use this to seek commercial advantages.



However, Ms Han stood by her suggestion. She did not see a problem with businesses having access to such data because journalists and non-governmental groups have the same access. Such a law also does not impede the Government's ability to keep things confidential for legitimate national security reasons, and can be amended to suit Singapore's needs, she said.

Asked by Mr Tong if she has studied this issue in depth, Ms Han said that she has not, and suggested setting up a Select Committee to study how such a Freedom of Information Act can meet Singapore's needs. Mr Tong replied: "I am sure that will be considered."









TOC website editor grilled over teen suicide reports
The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

The chief editor of a sociopolitical site was grilled over articles it carried two years ago about the suicide of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, as a discussion about the responsibility of content producers surfaced at yesterday's hearing.

Select Committee member Edwin Tong highlighted a February 2016 article by The Online Citizen, with a headline about police officers dressed in shirts with the word "Police" showing up at the teen's school. Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his block hours after he was questioned by the police over an alleged molestation case.

Yesterday, Mr Tong pointed out that the police had said in a statement days before the article was published that officers had gone in plainclothes and an unmarked car.

The Online Citizen's (TOC) Mr Terry Xu defended the site's decision to keep the headline and said the information about the policemen's clothes had come from the mother of a schoolmate of Benjamin.

Despite the police statement, and the issue having been debated in Parliament, Mr Xu said he would only be completely convinced of the police's account if he could see a CCTV recording showing officers at the school in plainclothes.

Mr Tong persisted with the line of questioning for almost 20 minutes, noting that as a content provider, Mr Xu was a key player. "And I think you agreed that as a content provider, you have a duty to ensure that the facts are checked and accurate," he said. Mr Xu agreed.

Mr Tong earlier asked Mr Xu if it was his journalistic duty to ensure he verified his information. "I always tell my friend, I don't call myself a journalist," said Mr Xu. But he agreed that as a content provider, he had to ensure what he published "is correct as to what I know".

Mr Tong also asked about a statement by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) carried by the site on Benjamin's death, and asked if Mr Xu would continue to carry it even if it was an inaccurate account. "Unless SDP retracts the statement, why should I remove the article?" asked Mr Xu. "This is a report on a political party's statement, so I don't see a reason why a publisher has to be taken accountable for something that others have published."










Pattern of 'denial and inaction' in tech firms' response to misuse on platforms: US professor tells Select Committee on fake news
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

Technology companies may say they actively prevent the spread of inappropriate online content on their platforms, but there has been a "pattern of denial and inaction" instead, a United States digital forensics expert has argued.

"I reject this idea that they are aggressively going after this content... The actions simply don't support it," Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods via video conferencing yesterday.

Technology firms should do more to rein in abuses online, said Prof Farid, who argued that they "put in just enough to stave off the regulatory issues".

At the hearing, the committee put to him that social media platforms would disagree that they have been unresponsive.



Video-sharing site YouTube, for instance, said 70 per cent of videos that it found to have violent extremist content were removed within eight hours of being uploaded.

But Prof Farid asked if YouTube had any idea of the extent of the problem and how many of these videos there are on its site.

The academic, who has conducted research on extremist material appearing on YouTube, said such videos can remain online for hours, days or weeks.

In his written submission, he also noted how US-based technology firms "dragged their feet" for five years even though they were asked by the US Attorney-General to help counter the spread of child pornography online.

It was only from 2008 that things got moving with a software called PhotoDNA. This is now in use worldwide and has helped to remove tens of millions of images of child exploitation from online platforms, wrote Prof Farid, who had a hand in developing the solution.

While technology can help in the fight against inappropriate content, he said human oversight is still needed as computer programs are not all accurate, and need help to identify new illegal content.

Meanwhile, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Benjamin Ang, whose submission focused on falsehoods that amount to national security threats, suggested setting up an independent body of non-governmental experts.

This group can help assess if the falsehoods are part of a larger disinformation operation. If so, a strategic rather than reactive response should be taken, he said in his written submission. This means not every story should be taken down or rebutted immediately, he added.



Mr Ang summed up the principles that should guide Singapore's response to falsehoods, which include building trust through transparent, continuous communication and building media literacy.

There are limitations to using legislation, he said, as this can be circumvented and online falsehoods can be used instead to build up the narrative that the Government is suppressing the truth.











Academic Cherian George urges caution in drafting new laws to tackle online untruths, calls for repeal of insult law
It could be weaponised by political opportunists, he says, while affirming the need for firm action
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

Hateful expression warrants a firm response, but not always with criminal law, academic Cherian George said yesterday.

Any such legislation, if used in the wrong circumstances, can be counter-productive and could be weaponised by political opportunists, he added.

Dr George, in making these points at a public hearing on deliberate online falsehoods, said hateful expression that incites discrimination has to be distinguished from mere insult and offensive remarks.

He suggested that Singapore repeal its insult law - Section 298 of the Penal Code.



The professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University made clear that laws have a role to play in fighting falsehoods and hateful expression.

But any new laws should be written carefully to help the Government keep up with the dissemination of hateful expression and falsehoods via new technologies, he added, instead of creating new classes of illegal speech.

There is a growing consensus among experts worldwide that insult laws that prohibit expressions which wound the feelings of religious or racial groups tend to backfire, he told the Select Committee.

Such laws tend to be used by the most intolerant groups in society to accuse more moderate and minority groups of causing offence, and then to call on the State to penalise the minority group, he noted.

While this has not yet happened in Singapore, he warned that Singapore cannot assume that it never will. "We need to look at the best thinking outside Singapore, among experts and policymakers that have been dealing with this for years."

In agreeing that laws have a place in fighting falsehoods and hateful expression, he said: "If today, a politician or preacher stands up and says our country has no room for (a particular) community, that is not the time to distribute media literacy booklets. Throw the book at him. The law is sometimes the first resort when it comes to incitement."

He urged the committee to focus on "upstream", long-term measures such as media literacy and civic literacy education to ensure citizens can critically evaluate information and are not vulnerable to intolerant, populist views.



In discussing his call to repeal Singapore's insult law, Dr George said: "I do, in all sincerity, hope that over the long term, the competent authorities... will in fact look deeply into whether this law needs to be tweaked, considering that even in the country we inherited this law from (India), there are experts who have pointed out for years that it does not work."

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education Janil Puthucheary argued that such a law ensures states can take action early against hateful expression, and not act only when it is too late, like when violence has broken out.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam added that while the law cannot be a complete solution to fighting online falsehoods and hateful expression, having a solid legal framework is necessary.

He said a multi-faceted approach is needed to deal with the "very significant" challenges posed by online untruths.

"It has got to include a substantial amount of media literacy education, an approach of bringing to the people a much better understanding of risks and the ability to understand what is true and false, but underpinned by a legal framework that gives the necessary powers to intervene," the minister said.

He added that legal action is not the Government's first "port of call". Instead, it will first gather religious leaders and hold discussions before turning to the law.

"The framework of laws that surround what can and cannot be said about another race or religion... thankfully, we have come to a position today where we don't have to invoke them very much," he said.



Mr Shanmugam added that the Government will look at whether repealing Section 298 would weaken the legal framework.

Dr George, in his written submission to the committee, also warned that the disproportionate attention paid to social media's role in the dissemination of hate expression and falsehoods can be counter-productive. "Hate propagandists... would not be helpless without it," he noted.

Face-to-face communication in places of worship and study groups probably play a much bigger role than online messages in fostering religious intolerance, he said.










National Library Board stepping up efforts to arm the public with critical thinking skills in fight against fake news
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

The National Library Board (NLB) is playing its part in the fight against fake news by stepping up efforts to arm the public with critical thinking skills, its director Wai Yin Pryke said yesterday.

Such skills have never been more important, given how people are inundated with information, whether at work, school or play, she told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

In 2013, NLB launched the Sure (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate) campaign to raise public awareness of information literacy, working with the Ministry of Education on resources for schools and to conduct training workshops for teachers and parents.

The campaign has been expanded to inculcate information literacy skills among adults as well. For example, NLB will conduct talks for adults, especially seniors.

Ms Pryke said: "Senior citizens are a particularly vulnerable group. They tend to think that because something has been published, it must be true. So, the challenge is to help them be more discerning."



At the hearing, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary asked how NLB can close the gap between the sources of truthful material it curates and sources of fake news such as Facebook and WhatsApp, where it is not traditionally active.

Ms Pryke noted that libraries are very active on popular messaging app platform WeChat in China.

"I am thinking we may have to take a serious good look at how we can make sure we are present on those platforms where fake news dominates," she added.

Speaking on a separate panel yesterday, entrepreneur Hazrul A. Jamari, who runs an e-commerce business, suggested that the Singapore Government form a joint task force with its Malaysian counterpart to debunk online scams and falsehoods, which often transcend national borders.

Mr Hazrul, who has a Facebook page debunking false claims about halal-certified food, said that the Malaysian government has a website, sebenarnya.my, which runs articles debunking online falsehoods, but it is not well known.



Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, a lawyer who was on the same panel, called for a multi-faceted approach that includes engaging with tech companies, using new technology such as blockchain to fight online falsehoods, refining the legal framework and inculcating online literacy among the public.

The father of three, who volunteers for charity and community organisations, said he felt moved to join the discussion on online falsehoods as he was concerned for future generations.

Representatives of inter-faith non-governmental group Roses of Peace, which aims to build a resilient society, suggested training young people to be "peace advocates" to tackle fake news.

They added that they will work with partners such as the Media Literacy Council to develop a "digital playbook". This will detail the strategies to identify fake news and counter its dissemination.










Extreme positions surface on tackling falsehoods
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2018

Yesterday's parliamentary Select Committee session was the longest since hearings started two weeks ago, stretching from 10am to 9pm and reflecting the degree to which some disagree with the introduction of any new laws to counter deliberate online falsehoods.

Even, it emerged, if the laws are designed to deal with falsehoods that are factually false and deliberately spread for nefarious means.

The longest segment was with a group comprising freelance journalist Kirsten Han, former website editor Howard Lee, The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu and human rights group Maruah's vice-president Ngiam Shih Tung. They dug deep to argue against legislation, describing it as an incursion into freedom of speech.



For a good hour or so, committee member and Member of Parliament Edwin Tong cited example after example of deliberate online falsehoods from around the world and asked the speakers whether they would want them taken down.

Whether the examples were tweets from fake Twitter accounts, Facebook posts based on fake pictures or untrue allegations, most of the four felt they should be left untouched.

This diverged significantly from the position of most of the speakers who had turned up in the previous days and were asked the same questions. Most had supported the taking down of content in similar examples, although some were also uncomfortable with the idea of introducing new laws.

While the Select Committee had received a wide spectrum of views in the past fortnight, yesterday's was the most absolutist in terms of opposing any new legislation to regulate speech, even if the speech were a deliberate online falsehood.

Ms Han was most unchangeable in her position, answering "no" to taking down a Facebook post by a prominent Buddhist monk in Myanmar, who had cited a woman's false claim about being raped by two Muslim co-workers.

The post on July 1, 2014, had incited angry mobs that ransacked shops and burned a mosque, leaving two people dead.

Her objection to taking down the post, said Ms Han, was that it may achieve nothing given that the problem had spread into the streets and was based on deep-rooted social divisions. She also cited worries of a "backfire effect", in which people may see the removal of the post as oppression and censorship, resulting in the situation becoming more inflamed.

At this point, Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, who is on the committee, jumped in to clarify her position, saying: "Your characterisation is that it is better to leave it up there and allow further hatred, further violence, further confusion to spread, because you are more worried about the backfire effect than the further harm that this information does? We haven't worked out how we will take it down yet but I'm asking: Do you want it taken down?"

To this, Ms Han said: "No, my position would be that we should explore other measures and use the existing laws that we already have, but I would not take that down."

She said there were already too many limits to freedom of expression in Singapore caused by the existence of other laws, adding any move to censor such falsehoods would only lead to more limits.

On Monday, Ms Han and Mr Xu took to Facebook to question the committee's sincerity in inviting them to the hearings after scheduling difficulties arose and the secretariat tried to change their hearing date.

Committee chairman Charles Chong yesterday explained that it was due to the committee wanting to group those with the same views together so they could hear one another's evidence.

Clearly, there is cynicism in some quarters about the Government's intentions in holding the hearings, despite its efforts to engage widely.

Whatever position the Government eventually takes on dealing with deliberate online falsehoods will be unlikely to please everyone. But policymaking requires the line to be drawn somewhere.

By engaging the group yesterday, the Government signalled it was willing to consider even the views of those it disagrees with philosophically, and take them into consideration.

However the Government eventually decides, such engagement will have to continue even with those who disagree with its policies and laws.

But, as yesterday showed, some may just not be persuaded at all.






Day 7: 28 Mar 2018






Two academics call for a multi-pronged approach
But new measures shouldn't stifle public exchange of ideas, they say
By Yuen Sin and Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

A multi-pronged approach should be adopted to tackle the problem of deliberate online falsehoods, two academics said yesterday, as no one solution is a silver bullet.

The measures should also not stifle the public exchange of ideas and opinions that are required in democracies, and key in building trust, they added.

The measures they cited in such an approach include stepping up media literacy, undertaking local research and updating laws.

The two academics - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Norman Vasu and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan - were speaking at a public hearing of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It was the seventh day of hearings, which have seen 59 representatives speak since March 14. The last one will take place today.



In his written submission, Dr Vasu outlined six categories of online falsehoods based on the degree of threat. Topping the list was disinformation aimed at undermining society, while parody was at the bottom. Other falsehoods, ranked according to diminishing degree of severity, were those spread for financial gain, sloppy journalism, interpreting facts or critical reports for political purposes, and differing interpretations of facts as a result of ideological bias.

Dr Vasu said responses should target only falsehoods created to undermine the state and untruths spread for financial gain, as such malicious spreading of disinformation can undermine elections and sow discord.

In other cases, measures are already in place to correct wrong information, like those arising from sloppy journalism, he added.

Both academics also said legislation can be considered, but highlighted its limitations. Laws may fail to keep pace with technological development, Dr Vasu pointed out.



Associate Professor Tan said overly broad laws could risk stifling the "bottom-up energy and mobilisation that is needed to fight deliberate falsehoods", and should be used only in situations of "clear and present danger".

For instance, a government's branding of a statement as false could be used for partisan purposes, and governments elsewhere have also had a hand in creating or spreading falsehoods.

Laws, if introduced, may also not adequately address the problem as they may not have the reach and jurisdiction to combat disinformation warfare mounted by foreign powers, Prof Tan added.

Instead, Singapore's efforts should focus on ensuring such campaigns do not succeed in undermining domestic resilience and social cohesion, he argued.

Dr Vasu stressed that the question of deciding what should be defined as true or false should not be left in the hands of a select few. Nor should governments try to do the same, said Prof Tan.

"The moment any government (tells each person what they should believe), then it is more likely than not the piece of information may not be believed at all," he added.

Any response to online falsehoods should target only those that are deliberately spread to undermine society, added Dr Vasu. He also said the creators of disinformation should be the ones taken to task, instead of focusing on people who pass them on as they may be doing so unwittingly.



When committee member Chia Yong Yong asked if this meant a person transmitting racially inflammatory information need not be held accountable, Dr Vasu disagreed.

He said it was important to consider the intention. Someone passing on racially incendiary falsehoods in Singapore will likely intend to stir up racial tensions.

Committee members Edwin Tong and Rahayu Mahzam posed a similar question to Prof Tan, who replied that concerns about racially inflammatory material here are valid.

But Singapore has not been too badly affected by incidents involving such falsehoods, and this points to "some level of local resilience", he said, even as he called for more local studies to be done on the issue.





















Real threat is not online falsehood but selective news consumption, says European lawyer
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

The real threat to democracy is not deliberate online falsehood, but selective news consumption, said a European lawyer and IT expert.

"The overreaching problem is that the news I get is not the news you get and so on," Mr Dan Shefet noted in his written submission to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.



Algorithms used by technology firms such as Facebook track users' online activities and preferences for targeted advertising, he said.

These also determine what articles show up on a person's newsfeed, creating bubbles and echo chambers. "That is very dangerous in a democracy. Whether it is fake or not is not the point," he warned the committee in person yesterday.

He said this problem should be addressed in the run-up to major political events such as an election. "It is a question of suspending the echo chambers for five weeks before an election so every one has the same news," he said without elaborating.

Mr Shefet, also a consultant to Unesco in the area of racial and religious radicalisation, said it was important for governments to regulate tech firms and the online space.

One way is by appointing an Internet ombudsman to offer guidance to Internet platform providers and search engine operators on what is unacceptable content.



Mr Shefet also raised another concern - behavioural psychology research which could be used to manipulate people on a large scale.

He cited research being conducted by Stanford University on the 60 "persuasion points" that each person is vulnerable to.

"If I had the data, I could persuade you to do anything I want you to do. It is dangerous to have this kind of science, this kind of research, if it falls in the wrong hands, as we saw with Cambridge Analytica," he said.

He was referring to how the British data-mining firm had reportedly used Facebook to collect the private data of tens of millions of Americans to help United States President Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election.










The Online Citizen ex-editor calls for Government to better engage citizen journalists to combat fake news
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

The former editor of a sociopolitical site in Singapore yesterday urged the Government to better engage citizen journalists, and even consider funding programmes to help them hone their skills.

This could help combat the problem of fake news, said Mr Andrew Loh, who co-founded The Online Citizen (TOC) in 2006.

"Why not the Government engage instead of confront?" he asked the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. "To combat falsehoods, we need everyone on board - and I agree with that, because we are talking about things like national security, our sovereignty and our national harmony."

He added: "Everyone must include the alternative media."



Acting chairman Seah Kian Peng assured Mr Loh that the committee was seeking a range of views, and looking at a multi-pronged approach to deal with online fabrications.

Mr Loh noted in his written submission to the committee that online content producers are mostly short on resources and amateurs at news reporting.

He suggested that the Government step up engagement with citizen journalists, who "can do better if they had the resources to do so". This, he added, will signal to the public that "the Government's position is not one of simply meting out punishment and penalties and threats".

A fund could be set up to help these content producers boost their writing or journalism skills and encourage people with legal and reporting knowledge to do workshops for the online community, he said.

Select Committee member Edwin Tong said the committee would consider the suggestion.

"The idea is... to inoculate, to make sure we build a more resilient society," Mr Tong said. "I don't think anyone on this committee will disagree with that."

The conciliatory note came after he and Mr Loh tussled for over 30 minutes on issues such as police powers and whether legislation like the Administration of Justice Act is used more heavily against alternative media than traditional media.



Mr Tong said Mr Loh seemed to suggest in his submission that alternative and mainstream media are treated differently. The Administration of Justice Act applies equally to both, he added.

Mr Loh also noted that laws have been passed to grant the police wider-ranging powers.

To this, Mr Tong cited a recent public perception survey to illustrate that Singaporeans trust the police, and said officers wielded some of these powers only under strict circumstances.

Mr Loh said that even so, that "is a bit of an overreach".

Intent was a bone of contention as well, with Mr Loh saying a person would need to have "malicious intentions" to be judged as having spread deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Tong countered that harm through such fabrications can be caused intentionally or otherwise, but noted that those who did so intentionally would be dealt with differently from those who did not.



In his submission, Mr Loh said meetings between new ministers and the online community were held after the 2011 General Election, and urged the Government to bring back such dialogue opportunities. Such engagement may result in a better outcome than "throwing the book" at online content producers, he told the committee.

While he agreed that there should be a range of remedies depending on the degree of a person's culpability, he cautioned the Government not to overreach as this could stifle freedom of expression.

"I hope the Government will understand we are not troublemakers. I don't hide. I am not anonymous," he said as his hour-long session drew to an end, recalling that he told his team not to use pseudonyms when he started TOC.










Some situations need Govt to step in, say dons
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

The local online citizenry is savvy enough to detect online falsehoods most of the time, but some situations warrant government intervention, said two academics from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

On a normal day, "low-level online trolling" can be quite easily dismissed by local netizens, Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods yesterday.

However, in an emergency such as an epidemic outbreak or riot, or a major event such as an election, the Government should step in "as a lifeguard", he said, adding that it should issue take-down notices of falsehoods and keep close tabs on those who create such fake news.

And such steps should not be taken quietly as they could fan conspiracy theories and suspicion, but should be publicised.



Dr Liew said: "The take-down principle is important for expressing a strong message... that the Government is serious about this, the authorities are acting on it."

Associate Professor Alton Chua agreed, adding: "The taking down itself cannot be done in isolation of other measures. It has to be publicised on mainstream media. It has to be interpreted in the larger context of what we value as a society."

Speaking to the media after the hearing, Dr Liew said the Government should pay particular attention to foreign troll operations.

He noted that after President Halimah Yacob was elected to her position last year, her Facebook page was inundated with more than 40,000 comments in simplified Chinese script.

"That is actually from… no prizes for guessing," he said, without identifying the culprit. "It is kind of like a hybrid war, and no government would say that it was orchestrated, and it takes a certain effort to have this process of information domination," he added.



During the hearing, both professors said other longer-term measures should be implemented.

Dr Liew said citizens have to be made more aware of what to look out for, and the Government must be seen to take action when citizens raise complaints, as underlying tensions can be exploited easily by online trolls to spark a crisis.

In his written submission, Prof Chua called for the National Education curriculum to be expanded to cover the moral, legal and social implications of fake news.

He also suggested supporting and growing fact-checking online communities. "A starting point can be found in the hubs of existing social networks and, in particular, influential users whose views and voices can spread widely within a short time," he noted.










Victim of fake news calls for more action
Singaporean bore the brunt of xenophobic comments when his photo was misused online
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

Mr Prakash Kumar Hetamsaria was in India two years ago when he was alerted to an article on alternative news site All Singapore Stuff.

Mr Hetamsaria, who became a Singapore citizen in 1999, was taken aback to see his photograph appearing with the article, "S'pore new citizen feels cheated, now wants his old citizenship back".

While he went on social media to clarify that the article and his photo were not linked, he and his wife and young daughter found themselves on the receiving end of xenophobic comments from strangers who did not find out the facts, he said.

"I should do my part but, at the same time, we should have been protected by some kind of legislation," Mr Hetamsaria, the chief financial officer of a trading firm, told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods yesterday.



He made a police report, but was told only a few months later that the matter could be addressed in civil court if he wished to pursue it.

While posting a rebuttal online helped to stop the spread of the falsehood - his photograph was removed from the website - more should be done, he added.

In his written submission, Mr Hetamsaria, a grassroots leader, suggested that websites which are potential troublemakers should be identified.

If found to have published falsehoods, they should first get a warning. They should be fined if they do it a second time, and shut down if it is the third time, he said. He also urged the public to be proactive in verifying news stories.



Appearing before the committee with him was Mr Raja Mohan, chief programme officer of a voluntary welfare organisation, who highlighted the need for media literacy as well.

This is especially so for elderly citizens, who may pass on false messages unknowingly, he said.

Separately, he also called for regulations making it compulsory for people who pay for political advertisements to declare their identities.





Timely reminder to look at what Singapore does right
There is merit in examining nation's resilience, not just vulnerability
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

A recurring theme in the Select Committee hearings on the issue of deliberate online falsehoods has been that Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the problem.

Many, from experts in national security and public policy to religious and community leaders, have warned about the ready-made fault lines in racially and religiously diverse Singapore that can be exploited by those with bad intentions.

The high level of Internet penetration and Singaporeans' love for life online can also help falsehoods go viral.

But a law don yesterday invited the committee to look not just at Singapore's vulnerability, but also its resilience.



"We hear of many foreign examples of falsehoods being perpetrated, but I think we need to better understand the ecosystem in Singapore. What is it that makes Singapore and Singaporeans more susceptible to falsehoods?

"Despite the various incidents that involve local cases, we have not been badly affected, and that points to something that speaks of some level of internal resilience," said Singapore Management University associate professor Eugene Tan, who proposed more research into this.

There have been no lack of examples cited over the seven days of hearings of tweets and Facebook posts that have inflamed tensions, incited violence and influenced election results.

In comparison, false news does not seem to have gained as much traction or caused as much damage here.

Prof Tan's sentiments were brought across by examples cited by two other speakers yesterday. While their experiences should not be trivialised, their cases are relatively benign and did not end in riots.

Mr Prakash Kumar Hetamsaria was one such victim here. In November 2016, his picture was used erroneously by website All Singapore Stuff along with an article about a new citizen who was planning to give up his citizenship.

He posted a rebuttal on his own Facebook page and made a police report the following day. A day later, his picture was removed.

But the incident had nonetheless caused him and his family hurt, he said, adding: "It is hard to take this kind of fake news. For the first two days, I was disturbed, but I decided I should ignore it and not spend time on it. I feel there should be legislation to protect the common man."

Mr Raja Mohan, meanwhile, had just a few weeks ago witnessed how a false report on the death of a famous 1970s singer greatly upset elderly residents, who wept when they first heard about it.

"When we found out it was fake, we told them... They couldn't believe it - they wanted to go to his house to check," he said.

That the Singapore-specific examples thus far have not led to more serious repercussions points to the country doing something right, said Prof Tan.

This has happened despite some of the conditions in the country being ripe for exploitation by purveyors of falsehoods.

Military and national security experts have warned at the hearings of Singapore's vulnerability, and said that the seeds of information wars may already have been sown here. This has been meticulously explored, as it should be.

But there is also merit in looking at what has gone right, which can inform the committee of what already exists in Singapore's arsenal and what other weapons are needed.

As has been seen in the past few days, it is precisely what is done in prevention - or not - that is the bone of contention, but as Prof Tan suggests, we also don't want a situation where new counter-measures weaken our innate ability to spot a fake and make the right judgment calls.





Day 8: 29 Mar 2018






Minister K. Shanmugam grills research fellow Thum Ping Tjin and says he is not an objective historian
Shanmugam rejects his view that Operation Coldstore was based on fake news
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spent close to six hours yesterday mounting a case that research fellow Thum Ping Tjin had fallen short of the standards of an objective historian when he accused the People's Action Party of using fake news to detain political opponents.

In particular, he grilled Dr Thum on a research paper he had written about the historical circumstances surrounding the 1963 Operation Coldstore, when more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists were arrested and detained.

Dr Thum, who was speaking at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods, contends there is no evidence the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore Government.

But Mr Shanmugan argued there was a communist conspiracy in the 1950s and early 1960s to mount an armed struggle against the state.

He took Dr Thum through various historical accounts made by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leaders and other researchers that were in conflict with certain points made in the paper by the historian.

Following questions, Dr Thum accepted that there were parts of the paper which he could have worded better.

He also agreed with Mr Shanmugam that his statements concerning a December 1962 telegram from Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner to Singapore during Operation Coldstore, were misleading.



In the course of the six hours, Dr Thum, a research fellow at Oxford University in Britain, also said he had not read accounts of some of the communist leaders cited by the minister.

Among other things, Mr Shanmugam noted that the paper does not cite CPM secretary-general Chin Peng.

"You say there is no evidence of any communism in the progressive left... and in saying that, you ignore the first-hand accounts of the secretary-general of the CPM," he said.

"A proper, competent historian who makes such a sweeping statement as 'there is no evidence' would say, 'The Number One man in the organisation does say things which are contradicted by me, but I disagree with him for this reason.' Then people can assess whether you are being accurate or not."

Dr Thum replied that he had not cited accounts by CPM leaders like Chin Peng because he judged them to be unreliable.



He also said it was impossible for him to have cited every possible relevant historical source in one academic paper, or explain why he did not cite each one.

His paper does, however, include a footnote with a historiography that includes many sources not directly cited in his paper, he said. "According to the conventions of historical writing, it is assumed that you will read all those other sources and you are responding to all those other sources," he said.

"So, there really is no need to cite things which are not part of my central argument."

Dr Thum also said that much of his research was based on documents from the Special Branch, the agency that preceded the Internal Security Department.

"According to Special Branch records, there was no sustained communist underground conspiracy after 1953, 1954 or so because it had been heavily smashed," said Dr Thum.

Mr Shanmugam told Dr Thum that his interpretation of those documents was flawed, and that even if there had not been any instructions for violent action from the CPM leaders, it did not mean there was no communist conspiracy among the lower levels of the organisation.

For example, Dr Thum noted that Special Branch papers showed that several communists arrested after the Hock Lee bus riots said they had nothing to do with organising it. While there was a communist presence in Singapore at the time, he argued, there was no organised conspiracy to mount violent acts.

Mr Shanmugam countered that there may have been specific groups of CPM cadres who were organising actions, such as the bus riots, without instructions from the top.

"The ultimate Marxist-Leninist aim of having a united front organisation that would infiltrate a variety of trade unions, middle schools, political parties on the road to struggle was completely in place," he said.

"Operational difficulties meant that on specific occasions there were no instructions given for specific actions. In fact... the cadres took it on themselves to go and do a lot. That doesn't prove there's no conspiracy."

He also put to Dr Thum that his views on communism, the Communist United Front and Operation Coldstore were contradicted "by the most reliable evidence".

"It ignores evidence which you don't like. You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture," Mr Shanmugam said.

Dr Thum replied: "I disagree."

He pointed out that since his paper's publication in 2013, it has been peer-reviewed and "thus far no historian has... contradicted the central thrust of my work".



After 51/2 hours of the hearing, the committee took a five-minute break. Mr Shanmugam ended his questioning of Dr Thum about 20 minutes after the sitting resumed. The other members of the Select Committee did not have any questions for Dr Thum.

In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum said that fake news has not had much of an impact in Singapore, save for one major exception: Operation Coldstore.

"Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state," he wrote.

"Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie," he said. "Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government."

Among other things, he called for the repeal or review of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code, which criminalises the deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person.










* Keeping quiet on historian Thum Ping Tjin's allegations about Lee Kuan Yew not an option: K. Shanmugam
Serious allegations had to be debunked: Shanmugam
Minister says historian made serious allegations and refused to answer many questions directly
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2018

Historian Thum Ping Tjin had made serious allegations about Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and these had to be addressed, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"Either they have to be accepted, or shown to be untrue. Keeping quiet about them was not an option," Mr Shanmugam wrote in a Facebook post.



He said he had been asked why he spent some time asking Dr Thum questions. Last Thursday, the minister grilled the academic for nearly six hours during the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Shanmugam said that Dr Thum's main point, in his written submission to the committee, "was that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the biggest creator of fake news in Singapore, a liar, and Operation Coldstore was based on falsehoods".

In his submission, Dr Thum cited previous research he did which contended that there was no evidence that the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore Government.

Dr Thum, a research fellow at Britain's Oxford University, also argued that the 1963 Operation Coldstore, in which more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists were arrested and detained, had been politically motivated.

These were serious allegations, Mr Shanmugam said in his post.

He said Dr Thum had refused to answer many of the questions directly, and it took five hours plus to go through the documents and records carefully.

In the end, Dr Thum said he had not read some of the material published by former communists on what happened in Singapore, and had "disregarded" the statements made by Chin Peng, leader of the Communist Party of Malaya.



The researcher also said that the way he set out the most important documents - of December 1962 - was not accurate; that the key meetings of Barisan Socialis showed that they were prepared to use armed struggle to overthrow a government of Singapore, if necessary; and the British had a honest view, in December 1962, that security action was necessary.

Added Mr Shanmugam: "People know me - I am direct, I deal with the facts, and say it as I think it is."

He also noted that cartoonist Sonny Liew "is not happy with what happened... It is quite understandable".

He was referring to the local cartoonist who had won three Eisner awards for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

In the early hours of yesterday, Mr Liew posted on Facebook an illustration depicting Mr Shanmugam in a white suit with a black dog, calling it a "visceral reaction" to viewing Dr Thum's hearing session.

Mr Liew described Dr Thum's session as a "relentless grilling over minutiae, where you speak only when spoken to, where one side seated on a high chair dictates all the lines and mode of questioning and unilaterally decides what sort of answers can be given, what sort of proof can be offered".

Mr Shanmugam, whose Facebook post was published after Mr Liew's, noted that the cartoonist is "quite close" to Dr Thum, and they work together on a venture. Both men are part of the team behind the New Naratif website.



The minister added that the Charlie Chan book is based on Dr Thum's version of history. "I have not met Sonny, but I have to say he is a good cartoonist," said Mr Shanmugam. "He is a talent."











Extracts from the exchange
The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

ON STANDARDS FOR HISTORIANS

Mr K. Shanmugam: These are the essential documents on which the Operation Coldstore was decided upon: The telegrams, the underlying notes and, of course, this entire huge brick on open front... Based on what I quoted you from the professor from Cambridge (Regius Professor Richard Evans), can I suggest to you that you have pretty much breached a number of rules that he set out. Let's not argue about it. You can just disagree.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin: Yep, I disagree.



Mr Shanmugam: I would say you have fallen completely through the standard of an objective historian. You can also disagree.

Dr Thum: Disagree.

Mr Shanmugam: Your views on communism, CUF (Communist United Front) in Singapore, Operation Coldstore, which you have been repeating at multiple fora, are contradicted by the most reliable evidence... You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture. You can agree or disagree.

Dr Thum: I disagree. Of course, I disagree.




















What is Operation Coldstore?
The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

On Feb 2, 1963, hundreds of armed policemen fanned out across Singapore to round up more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists in a major swoop code-named Operation Coldstore.

Among those rounded up was top Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong.

The islandwide crackdown, reportedly a continuation of security operations mounted since 1948 to contain the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), shattered the underground communist network in Singapore.

A Straits Times report at the time said the operation was "aimed at preventing subversives from establishing a 'communist Cuba' in Singapore and mounting violence just before Malaysia". That was in reference to the merger of Singapore with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia, which took place on Sept 16, 1963.

As the communist threat faded over the years, many of the detainees were released and went on to lead quiet lives.

Some had been detained for more than 15 years.



In recent years, Operation Coldstore has become the subject of debate, with former detainees such as Dr Poh Soo Kai alleging that the crackdown was politically motivated.

Historians such as Dr Hong Lysa have made similar claims.

In a bid to shed new light on Singapore's political developments in the 1960s, researchers have based their work on confidential records of the British colonial authorities that were declassified in the past decade or so.

The Government has said the arrests were justified as the CPM was a major security threat.

The CPM's secretary-general Chin Peng had said in his memoirs that Operation Coldstore broke up the party's underground network throughout the island.










Exchange highlights importance of examining facts scrupulously
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

For six hours yesterday, the parliamentary Select Committee set up to look into deliberate online falsehoods did not examine the issue directly.

Instead, it delved into Singapore's past after a historian giving evidence accused the Government of being a purveyor of fake news.

But the detour served to throw light on a theme brought up by quite a few speakers during the eight days of hearings - that it is important to be scrupulous in examining facts when deciding on what is false, to arrive at the truth.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a research fellow in anthropology and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford, had charged that the Government had put forth its own historical "truth" about the February 1963 crackdown code-named Operation Coldstore.

More than 100 communists and pro-communist activists were detained under the Internal Security Act for subversive activities, the Government has said.

But Dr Thum disputes this, saying there was no evidence to show the detainees were involved in any conspiracy against the Government.

Given this, he said in his written submission to the committee, the solution to countering fake news cannot be any new laws, and should instead be to educate people to be more sceptical towards information regardless of its source.

His claim no doubt gives voice to the cynics out there who doubt the Government's intention in the entire exercise. Some had spoken at the hearings in the past few days, warning about the dangers of having the Government be the arbiter of truth.

But the tables were turned yesterday when the committee put Dr Thum's research under the microscope and sought to show that he, himself, had been selective with his sources.



Dr Thum had first made the claim about Operation Coldstore in a 2013 paper. In it, he says there is no evidence of communism in the progressive left during the period.

But this was contrary to the writings of key communists at that time, including Communist Party of Malaya secretary-general Chin Peng and party members such as Fong Chong Pik, Zhang Taiyong and Wong Soon Fong, among others cited by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

In their books, they had recounted their own and other leading leftists' involvement in communist activities.

When presented with these sources, Dr Thum said he had not heard of some of them, or did not read their writings, or had decided not to cite their evidence - such as Chin Peng's - because he considered them "unreliable".

The exchange dragged on, with Dr Thum and Mr Shanmugam disagreeing over the academic's interpretation of several documents from the British archives. They reached a stalemate on most counts.

Dr Thum was subjected to yes-no questions, which he said he could not answer because nuances would be lost. He repeated a few times that as an academic, he had to qualify his answers.


"You can't possibly account for every single source that ever existed anywhere in a published work of 10,000 words, including citations," he said at one point.

Mr Shanmugam suggested that this fell far short of accepted standards of historical scholarship. Citing a decision in a British case involving a Holocaust denier, he said: "An objective historian is obliged to be even-handed in his approach to historical evidence; he cannot pick and choose without adequate reason."

Instead of doing this, Dr Thum had disregarded the first-hand accounts of leading communists of that era, and said in his historiography that there is no evidence of any communism in the progressive left, Mr Shanmugam said.

"You may think them unreliable, but anyone reading your document would not even know they have said these things, because you say there is no evidence," the minister said, adding that a competent historian would have at least mentioned it, expressed his own disagreement, and let people make their own assessments.

While the approach to history research may not be a complete parallel of the approach to determining what is true or false online, the exchange was illustrative of what would happen when facts were missed, conveniently left out or just ignored.

Whoever adjudicates on deliberate online falsehoods would do well to learn from this lesson, and to consider all objectively discernible facts and subject them to dissection.









Hold tech firms, social media platforms accountable, say students
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

Technology companies and social media platforms should be required to monitor content and held liable for failing to take down offending content in certain cases.

That is the most feasible way for Singapore to deal with the scourge of online untruths, a lawyer and a group of Singapore Management University (SMU) undergraduates told the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods yesterday.

They noted that the "true mischief" of the problem lies in how untruths can be disseminated to a virtually unlimited audience.



In clear-cut instances, unlawful content should be removed as fast as possible by the platform when users have alerted it to the content, said lawyer Sui Yi Siong and the undergrads in their written submission.

In other less straightforward instances, the platform should wait for a judicial order on the appropriate course of action, they said.

Doing so would strike a balance between protecting freedom of speech while keeping in check the dire consequences of allowing falsehoods to spread, they added.



Another group of students from SMU, who appeared on the same panel, suggested that existing laws be amended. For instance, the Telecommunications Act can be amended to hold to account not just those who knowingly spread falsehoods, but also those who ought to have known that the messages were false, they said.

Thus, citizens will have to scrutinise messages responsibly instead of unthinkingly passing on false messages. But there should be prosecutorial discretion as the amendment will widen the scope of potential offenders, the students added.

Separately, a former journalist from The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia suggested separating the news operations of mainstream media companies from the rest of their business.

Their news operations can then be run under a not-for-profit umbrella to shield them from resource constraints and cost-cutting measures, said Mr Nicholas Fang, who noted that such companies have been hit by financial pressures in the light of technological disruption.



The separation will allow the mainstream media to build up the quality of content produced, said Mr Fang, who is managing director of communications consultancy Black Dot.

This, he told Select Committee member Janil Puthucheary, can enhance the appeal of such trusted sources, which take a rigorous approach to accuracy.

Readers who now pick up information from alternative sources - which can become "a playground for fake news" - can then be convinced to rely on credible news outlets instead.



Committee member Pritam Singh asked Mr Fang, who had noted flagging morale among journalists working in the mainstream media, if the low morale could be linked to out-of-bound markers that they might face in the local media industry.

Mr Fang replied that he has not faced such obstacles in his 18 years in the industry, and that it is unlikely to be the case. The problem is linked to a fall in viewership and readership over the years, he said.

Both he and Singapore University of Technology and Design's media and communication professor Lim Sun Sun also called for media literacy efforts to be stepped up.










7 themes from 8 days of public hearings on deliberate online falsehoods
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2018

A high-level parliamentary committee looking into how Singapore can thwart deliberate online untruths wrapped up on Thursday (March 29), after a record eight days of public hearings.

The 10-member Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, made up of ministers and MPs, heard from around 70 speakers at the hearings, which started on March 14.

The speakers included Singapore students and academics, as well as overseas academics and representatives of media and technology companies such as Facebook and Google. Some travelled here from countries such as Indonesia, Germany and Ukraine.

The exchanges got somewhat testy in a few cases, notably when Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam last week grilled Mr Simon Milner, Facebook vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific, over data breaches affecting millions of its users. Likewise, it got a tad tense on Tuesday at a session involving civil society activists which lasted five hours.

Here are the main themes that have emerged:

1. DIFFICULTY IN DEFINING ONLINE FALSEHOODS

When disinformation contains a grain of truth, it becomes extremely tough to define what is hyperpartisan, what is unbalanced or incorrect, and what is deliberately false, a senior fellow at an American think-tank said on the second day of hearings.

In a debate with Mr Shanmugam, Dr Ben Nimmo said that if a legal approach is considered, "just the preamble to your legislation is going to be the size of the Oxford English dictionary".

Last week, representatives of the Singapore Press Club and Singapore Corporate Counsel Association also highlighted the need for a clear understanding of the definitions of deliberate untruths if new laws are drafted.

"There will be a lot of grey areas," said Singapore Press Club president Patrick Daniel. "I would submit that in current legislation, and in current codes of practice it is not so clear."

Committee member Janil Puthucheary put to the groups that some said factors like intent, whether information can be proven false, and their impact on society, could help in defining disinformation.

While the two groups agreed that there is a spectrum of falsehoods, some of which ought to be stopped, they added that there is a need to deal fairly with genuine errors and allow space for satire and parody as part of media and creative work.

But National University of Singapore law professor Thio Li-ann said a legal definition of deliberate online falsehoods is possible. She added that it is a question of procedure, although certain facts are easier to establish than others.

Meanwhile, Dr Norman Vasu of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said the question of what should be defined as true or false should not be left in the hands of a select few.


2. ONLINE FALSEHOODS AS A NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT

Conflicts can be won without a single bullet, said RSIS defence specialist Michael Raska.

Disinformation can be used instead to intrude on another nation's sovereignty, he added.

His RSIS colleague, Dr Gulizar Haciyakupoglu, in turn warned of signs in recent months that an information warfare against Singapore is already under way, with an unnamed country trying to influence minds and legitimise its actions by putting out its narrative through news articles and social media.

She was one of two experts who testified in closed-door hearings.

The other, Dr Damien Cheong, also a national security expert with RSIS, said the goal of a state-sponsored disinformation campaign is to destabilise government and society.

He added that Singaporeans could share untruths without malicious intent and that neighbouring countries such as Malaysia have cyber armies that could be deployed against the Republic directly or as proxies for other nations.

A recurring theme in the hearings was also that Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the problem of deliberate falsehoods, which capitalise on existing fault lines in society.

Associate Professor Kevin Limonier of the French Institute of Geopolitics at the University of Paris 8 noted that there would not be any "vectors" passing on false messages if there were no local audience for them - a weakness that external actors exploit.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar, who is head of RSIS' Centre of Excellence for National Security, warned that Singapore could also be a "sandbox for subversion" due to its smart nation push and social media penetration.

But Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan sounded an optimistic note, adding that Singapore has not been badly affected by falsehoods spread locally and that this may reflect some level of internal resilience. He proposed that more research be done to understand the ecosystem here.


3. WILL COUNTERMEASURES STIFLE FREE SPEECH?

A common concern raised was whether measures against online falsehoods would impinge on free speech, causing a chilling effect on society.

Mr Jakub Janda, head of the Kremlin Watch Programme in Prague, cautioned that government action to define, investigate and take down information could be seen as curbs on free speech.

Similarly, Dr Nimmo added that he is "very wary of any legislative proposal... because the precedent for countries which are hostile to democracy would be very, very alarming".

Members of the civil society here urged against measures that will further restrict the freedom of expression.

Freelance journalist Kirsten Han said there are already laws dealing with certain forms of speech here, including those that wound the religious feelings of others.

Human rights group Maruah warned that new laws to counter falsehoods could be used to stifle legitimate, dissenting views.

However, Prof Thio and Mr Gaurav Keerthi, founder of debating websites Dialectic.sg and Confirm.sg, cast doubt on whether a marketplace of ideas - in which the truth emerges after a fair contest in which every one speaks his mind without constraint - can truly take place on social media today.

Mr Keerthi said the social media space is a "poor proxy" for such a marketplace, as information is not spread in a transparent way or based on how true it is, but manipulated by algorithms.

Prof Thio noted that the spread of disinformation impedes public debate and destroys the very reason for free speech itself.





4. ARE THERE GAPS IN THE LAW?

Over the last three weeks, various academics have pointed out gaps in existing laws to deal with online untruths.

SMU law dean Goh Yihan, whose views were repeated regularly at the hearings by committee members, said existing legislation such as the Sedition Act and Telecommunications Act are limited in scope, speed and adaptability in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods.

For example, an offence under the Telecommunications Act does not apply where a person is unaware that a message is fabricated, and the penalty is targeted at the offender rather than the falsehood itself. This means the disinformation may remain online while prosecution is ongoing.

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Carol Soon said in turn that "in view of the changing online environment, it is timely for the Government to review existing legal provisions and strengthen them".

Legislation must safeguard against harmful content and current laws do not sufficiently address the virality of online falsehoods, she added.

While technology companies said new legislation was not needed here, Mr Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, conceded after being quizzed that there could be gaps in Singapore's laws, preventing quick action from being taken against online falsehoods.


5. BEWARE THE BACKFIRE EFFECT

If new laws are needed to counter online falsehoods, these laws should acknowledge unintended consequences and avoid overreach into legitimate speech, said media studies professor Cherian George.

"The law, no matter how well written, may have limited impact because of the threat of backfire," he added.

He cautioned that legislation which prohibit the wounding of feelings may be used as a weapon instead by the most intolerant groups against moderates.

Prof George also noted that the law is sometimes the first resort when it comes to clear cases of incitement.

If a politician or preacher stands up and says that Singapore has no room for a particular community, it is not the time to distribute media literacy leaflets, he said, adding that one should "throw the book at him".

Similar worries of a "backfire effect" were echoed by freelance journalist Kirsten Han, as people may see the removal of a post as oppression and censorship, causing a situation to become more inflamed.





6. WHAT ROLE SHOULD TECH COMPANIES PLAY?

Technology companies, such as social media platforms, should play a more proactive role in detecting and removing online falsehoods, said many over the course of hearings.

Some experts pointed to the growing importance of social media in military campaigns.

Noting it is easy to create the impression that an opinion is popular online, Mr Morteza Shahrezaye of the Technical University of Munich called on social media firms to be more transparent with the goal of their algorithms. These determine which posts become more widespread.

Governments should step in to hold platforms responsible for content they allow to be spread, after it has been found to be false, he added.

But some, like Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College, said there has been a "pattern of denial and inaction" from social media firms in tackling inappropriate content on their platforms.

Appearing before the Select Committee, technology firms Facebook, Twitter and Google argued that they have adopted measures to tackle falsehoods.

They have invested heavily in technology and schemes, developing algorithms that can flag less trustworthy content and prioritise authoritative sources. They also have partnerships with non-profit organisations that help identify and take down offensive material.

Yet, pointing to the way Facebook handled a major data breach in recent years, Mr Shanmugam questioned if the social network can be trusted to cooperate in the fight against online falsehoods.

He questioned Facebook's Mr Milner on how the platform had known about a data breach affecting more than 50 million of its users back in 2015, but did not admit to this until earlier this month.

In the breach in 2014, personal data of these Facebook users were inappropriately obtained and shared with British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.


7. ARE THERE NON-LEGISLATIVE MEASURES WE CAN CONSIDER?

From arming the public with critical thinking and media literacy skills, to having fact-checking groups to help debunk falsehoods, a variety of non-legislative measures to counter fake news were suggested.

Associate Professor Alton Chua of Nanyang Technological University called for the National Education curriculum to be expanded, to cover the moral, legal and social implications of falsehoods. He also suggested supporting and growing fact-checking online communities.

Media company Singapore Press Holdings and broadcaster Channel NewsAsia proposed having an independent fact-checking body to identify deliberate online falsehoods and recommend appropriate remedial actions.

RSIS senior fellow Benjamin Ang in turn suggested setting up an independent body of non-governmental experts, who can aid in assessing if falsehoods identified are part of a larger disinformation operation. If so, a strategic rather than reactive response should be taken.

Meanwhile, civil society representatives suggested improving media literacy and political education, as well as having a Freedom of Information Act.
















Select Committee hearings on fake news end after 50 hrs
Two clear themes emerge, says Charles Chong
Importance of free speech, need for new laws come to the fore, notes committee chairman
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2018

Two recurring themes have emerged during the eight days of public hearings by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, its chairman Charles Chong said in his wrap-up statement yesterday.

These are: The importance of free speech and the need for added legislation.

He noted that some who appeared before the committee had argued that free speech protections do not extend to the spread of falsehoods, and that "we are entitled to our own opinion and not our own facts".

Some others, however, were opposed to putting any limits on expression, even when it is "demonstrably false and harmful".

Current legislation, Mr Chong said, was limited in tackling the problem. While some opposed any new laws, others gave "specific proposals" on how anti-fake news laws should look like, he added.

However, Mr Chong said "many agreed on the need to respond to falsehoods both quickly and effectively, as a matter of principle".



Different approaches were suggested. These include quality journalism as a bulwark against the spread of false information and the need for a fact-checking mechanism.

Media literacy groups and others, he added, spoke on "the need to educate all segments of the public on how to discriminate between what is factual and what is not".

Mr Chong, in summarising the evidence given, said the committee heard "first-hand how deliberate online falsehoods are a real and serious problem and how they can harm national security, racial and religious harmony, public institutions and democratic processes".

He said that, among other things, the committee also learnt how digital technologies have made it easier, cheaper and more profitable to create and spread falsehoods.

He added: "We also held two private sessions to hear about information campaigns with national security implications for Singapore.''

The people who came before the committee included local and overseas experts, technology and media companies, civil society members, students and members of the public.

With tongue firmly in cheek, he added: "And one protester."

He was referring to activist Han Hui Hui, who was removed from the room by Parliament staff for "creating a disturbance".



Ms Han, seated in the public gallery, had repeatedly displayed a copy of the book cover of Authoritarian Rule Of Law: Legislation, Discourse And Legitimacy In Singapore by academic Jothie Rajah.

The committee said that Human Rights Watch had not replied to its invitation to give oral evidence by the noon deadline yesterday.

It will produce a report with recommendations to Parliament after the latter reconvenes in May.





















Thum Ping Tjin is research associate with anthropology school: Oxford
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 14 Apr 2018

Historian Thum Ping Tjin is a research associate with Oxford University's School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, said a university spokesman yesterday.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, Oxford University's head of communications Stephen Rouse said Dr Thum was awarded a doctorate in history by Oxford in 2011. He added that Dr Thum is a Visiting Fellow of the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group within the school, and therefore an affiliate of the school.



Mr Rouse also said there are three categories of research associates with the school - anthropologists based in Oxford, recent doctorate graduates of the department, or social scientists based outside the university working with members of the department.

Dr Thum falls into the third category, he said, adding that research associates are not employees of the school or university. "But they are valued colleagues with whom we have shared research interests."

Oxford's response came after the Parliament Secretariat yesterday wrote to Dr Thum asking him to "clarify his academic credentials".



In a press statement yesterday, the Office of the Clerk of Parliament said Dr Thum's written representation to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods had stated that he was a research fellow in history at Oxford. It noted that there have been varying accounts, citing how Dr Thum informed the committee during the hearing that he held a "visiting professorship in anthropology", among other things.

Clarifications have thus been sought to ensure that the committee's report correctly reflects Dr Thum's positions, it said.











Thum Ping Tjin's Select Committee submission a 'political piece': Charles Chong
It's not a dissertation so he must expect to be questioned, he says in reply to academics' letter
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2018

Historian Thum Ping Tjin's written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods "is not an academic dissertation but a political piece", and he must expect to be questioned about the claims he put forth in it, said Mr Charles Chong.

Responding to an open letter signed by over 200 academics here and overseas defending Dr Thum, Mr Chong said yesterday it was Dr Thum who chose to use the hearings to make a political point about Operation Coldstore - a security operation that took place 55 years ago, long before the Internet existed.

"Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers," said Mr Chong, an MP for Punggol East who chairs the parliamentary panel.

He noted that Dr Thum had in his submission referred to his position as founder of website New Naratif, which Mr Chong described as a group involved in political activism.

"There is nothing wrong with political activism in itself. But it is odd to make political points - as Dr Thum did - and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned,"said Mr Chong.

In a two-page statement, Mr Chong, who is also Deputy Speaker of Parliament, set out his response to the letter which expressed concern over how Dr Thum was questioned by committee member and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam for six hours last month, "treating him and his widely respected scholarship with disdain". Circulated online over the last two weeks, it also called for Mr Chong to apologise for the committee's treatment of Dr Thum.

In his written submission to the panel, Dr Thum charged that the 1963 Operation Coldstore - during which over 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested - was carried out for political gain. The People's Action Party Government had been the main source of falsehoods in Singapore, he asserted, as there was no evidence that the detainees were involved in a communist conspiracy to overthrow it.



In his reply, Mr Chong said: "Dr Thum is entitled to his views. But when he puts them before a Select Committee, he must expect to be questioned about them. And indeed Dr Thum wrote that he was willing to appear before us. It is therefore surprising that the letter suggests Dr Thum was questioned 'without warning'."

The open letter said the truth cannot be "put on trial in a parliamentary committee", and that Mr Shanmugam is not an expert who is qualified to undertake a peer review of Dr Thum's research.

"This is surprising," said Mr Chong. "Legislators all over the world regularly have robust exchanges with witnesses, including academics," he said, noting how Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by congressional committees in the US.

"I do not understand why a special immunity is being claimed for academic historians," he said, adding that it was not accurate to describe Dr Thum as an academic historian.

He said the letter makes the point that Dr Thum's articles have been peer-reviewed. "But it is not at all clear whether all the assertions Dr Thum made in his written statement had been peer-reviewed, and how they had acquired the status of unquestionable truths."

Mr Chong said that during the hearings, Dr Thum was asked to explain his position, by reference to relevant documents, and had made several concessions.

These included how his writings were misleading in parts; that the British authorities, contrary to his claims, had believed that Operation Coldstore was necessary for security reasons; that he had not read or heard of the writings of some of the Communist Party of Malaya's former leaders; and that some members of the Barisan Sosialis did in fact consider "armed struggle" a legitimate option to pursue at some stage; and that he had disregarded the views of Communist Party of Malaya secretary-general Chin Peng on many aspects without making it clear that he was disregarding them.

"These concessions substantially undermined his thesis that Operation Coldstore was launched purely for party political advantage," said Mr Chong.

As the letter points out, he said, none on the Select Committee are trained historians. "If Dr Thum could not defend his claims under questioning, surely this must reflect on the quality of his writings and research, not the process?"

Mr Chong also said the letter's concerns about academic freedom are misplaced, noting that more than 20 academics from Singapore and elsewhere had given oral evidence to the committee, and several questioned at length.

While individual members of the committee did not always agree with the academics who gave evidence, "we all benefited from the learning they brought to bear on the questions before us".

He added that the hearings were held in public and videos of proceedings available online, and transcripts will be produced. "Unless they lied or prevaricated, every witness before us, and the evidence they gave, is protected by parliamentary privilege."

Separately, six academics from Oxford University's Project Southeast Asia initiative also issued a statement on Monday, calling on the committee to issue a public apology for the "unacceptable treatment" of Dr Thum, a coordinator and trustee with Project Southeast Asia.

The committee will reconvene next month to deliberate on a report of its findings to Parliament.











Charles Chong: Thum Ping Tjin not an academic historian
The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2018

It is not accurate to describe Dr Thum Ping Tjin as an academic historian, said Mr Charles Chong.

He said yesterday that the Select Committee has "had some difficulty" identifying Dr Thum's precise academic position. In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum described himself as a research fellow in history, but said in his oral testimony he was holding a visiting professorship in anthropology at Oxford University, said Mr Chong.

He added: "Oxford has confirmed that he is not in fact an employee, and that he is a visiting fellow with the fertility and reproduction studies group in the School of Anthropology. And before that he was a visiting scholar (not a research fellow) at the Oxford Centre for Global History, another unpaid position."

In response to queries, Oxford's head of communications Stephen Rouse said last week that Dr Thum is a research associate at its School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. He is a visiting fellow of the fertility and reproduction studies group within the school, and therefore an affiliate of it.

Mr Rouse added that research associates are not employees, but "are valued colleagues with whom we have shared research interests". Dr Thum was awarded a doctorate in history by Oxford in 2011.











In full: Chairman of Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods responds to open letter defending Dr Thum Ping Tjin 
TODAY, 17 Apr 2018

The chairman of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Charles Chong, has responded to an open letter in support of historian Thum Ping Tjin and academic freedom by more than 130 academics around the world. Here is Mr Chong's statement in full:

There is an open letter addressed to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which I chair. The authors of the letter are unknown. The letter takes issue with our questioning of Dr Thum Ping Tjin.

In his written representation to our Committee, Dr Thum alleged that the Singapore Government is the chief source of fake news in Singapore. He specifically referred to Operation Coldstore, and charged that the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was the primary liar.

Dr Thum is entitled to his views. But when he puts them before a Select Committee, he must expect to be questioned about them. And indeed Dr Thum wrote that he was willing to appear before us. It is therefore surprising that the letter suggests Dr Thum was questioned “without warning”.

The letter argues that Dr Thum’s claims should only have been questioned by other historians, and not by a parliamentary committee. This is surprising.

Legislators all over the world regularly have robust exchanges with witnesses, including academics. Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has just finished two days of questioning by US congressional committees. I do not understand why a special immunity is being claimed for academic historians.



Nor is it accurate to describe Dr Thum as an academic historian. We have had some difficulty identifying his precise academic position. In his written representation, he described himself as a “Research Fellow in History”, but in his oral testimony he said he was holding a “visiting professorship in anthropology” at Oxford University. Oxford has confirmed that he is not in fact an employee, and that he is a Visiting Fellow with the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group in the School of Anthropology. And before that he was a Visiting Scholar (not a Research Fellow) at the Oxford Centre for Global History, another unpaid position.

Dr Thum’s submission also refers to his position as the founder of a group which is involved in political activism. His five‐page written submission is not an academic dissertation but a political piece. There is nothing wrong with political activism in itself. But it is odd to make political points – as Dr Thum did – and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned.

The letter makes the point that Dr Thum’s articles have been peer reviewed. But it is not at all clear whether all the assertions Dr Thum made in his written statement had been peer reviewed, and how they had acquired the status of unquestionable truths.

In any event the authors may wish to look more carefully at the actual answers Dr Thum gave. He was asked to explain his position, by reference to relevant documents. When faced with these documents, Dr Thum made a number of concessions: That his writings were misleading in parts; that the British authorities, contrary to his claims, had honestly believed that Operation Coldstore was necessary for security reasons; that he had not read – and sometimes not even heard of – the writings of some of the former leaders of the Communist Party of Malaya; and that some members of the Barisan Sosialis did in fact consider “armed struggle” a legitimate option to pursue at some stage; and that he had disregarded the views of Chin Peng, the Secretary‐General of the Communist Party of Malaya, on many important aspects without making it clear that he was disregarding them. These concessions substantially undermined his thesis that Operation Coldstore was launched purely for party political advantage.



As the letter points out, none of us on the Committee are trained historians. We only read Dr Thum’s written representation when it came in in February. We asked him to defend a claim that he had put to us. If Dr Thum could not defend his claims under questioning, surely this must reflect on the quality of his writings and research, not the process?

Further, the letter’s concerns about academic freedom are misplaced. More than 20 academics, from Singapore and elsewhere, gave oral evidence to our committee. Several were questioned at length. Some disagreed with members of the Committee. All were forthright in their views and I would be very surprised if any of them were intimidated by the process. To be sure, individual members of our Committee did not always agree with the academics who gave evidence to us. But we all benefited from the learning they brought to bear on the questions before us.

Our hearings were held in public. Videos of the proceedings are available online, as are the written representations made to us. Full verbatim transcripts will be produced.

Unless they lied or prevaricated, every witness before us, and the evidence they gave, is protected by parliamentary privilege. So let us be clear. It was Dr Thum who chose to use our committee, on deliberate online falsehoods – to make a political point about Operation Coldstore, a security operation that took place 55 years ago, long before the Internet existed.

Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers.









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