Saturday, 22 September 2018

Select Committee on fake news: 22 recommendations unveiled to combat online falsehoods in Singapore

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood Report - 20 Sep 2018

Select Committee releases 22 proposals to combat fake news
It calls for new laws to give Govt power to quickly disrupt spread of falsehoods
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

A parliamentary Select Committee has called for new laws that will grant the Government power to swiftly disrupt the spread of online falsehoods, as part of a broad suite of measures to counter the "live and serious threat" posed by fake news.

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods made 22 recommendations in all, from enacting legislation to urging technology companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.

It submitted a 176-page report to Parliament on Wednesday, almost six months after it held public hearings over eight days in March to listen to oral representations from 65 individuals and organisations.

Responding to the committee's report yesterday evening, the Government said it accepts in principle the recommendation for a multi-pronged response to tackle deliberate online falsehoods.

The 10-member committee, chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong, was appointed in January to examine the phenomenon of deliberate online falsehoods and study what measures Singapore should take to prevent and combat the problem.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, committee member and Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary said the phenomenon of deliberate online falsehoods "threatens our national security".

He pointed to how "malicious actors" have been testing the limits of what they can do online.

"They essentially have been looking for different ways to weaponise falsehoods on the Internet. This phenomenon has grown in strength and has resulted in consequences in various parts of the world."

Different governments are taking steps to protect their people and their countries against online falsehoods, he said. "They see and appreciate the need for swift action, and Singapore, too, is doing our best to act early."

There is no one silver bullet to tackle this complex problem, the committee said, as it proposed multiple short-and long-term measures, grouped in five broad areas.

Its recommendations are aimed at disrupting online falsehoods, nurturing an informed public, reinforcing social cohesion and trust, promoting fact-checking and dealing with threats to national security and sovereignty.

Yesterday, the Government said it will study the committee's report closely and work with stakeholders to roll out the non-legislative and legislative measures it recommended over the next few months.

On disrupting online falsehoods, the committee said the Government should have the power to limit or block the spread of fake news, and discredit the sources of such falsehoods. Legislation will be needed to disrupt the spread and influence of fake news, it stressed.

In recommending new laws - a move observers had expected - the committee did not delve into specifics. Rather, it set out the principles any new laws should follow.

For instance, the measures need to be effective in a matter of hours, to achieve the aim of stopping the falsehoods from going viral. These measures could include take-down powers and blocking access.

The committee also suggested that there be laws to cut off digital advertising revenue to those who spread fake news and impose criminal sanctions in serious cases, such as when falsehoods cause public disorder or interfere in elections.

In a nod to concerns about legislative over-reach and stifling free speech, the committee said the new laws should be calibrated, taking into account the context and circumstances of each case.

"It is also important that they be accompanied by checks and balances," the committee said, adding that adequate safeguards need to be put in place to ensure due process and the proper exercise of power.

To bring about a more informed public, the committee recommended creating a framework to guide efforts to improve media literacy among Singaporeans.

It suggested that media organisations and industry partners consider setting up a fact-checking coalition to swiftly debunk fake news, and gave several ideas on ways to ensure accurate journalism.

Technology companies need to be more transparent and accountable, the committee said. It listed steps they could take, including closing accounts that are designed to amplify online falsehoods and banning the placement of advertisements on sites that spread fake news.

It added that the Government should consider both legislation and other forms of regulation to get technology companies to comply.

"Legislation would be needed particularly for measures to be taken in response to an online falsehood, since Facebook, Google and Twitter have a policy of generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false," it said.

The committee devoted the first half of its report to outlining the serious harm of deliberate online falsehoods, which can and have wreaked havoc. Such falsehoods are a "unique phenomenon of an unprecedented scale", and can damage the social fabric of a nation and violate national sovereignty.

Deliberate online falsehoods are a real and serious problem for the world, and Singapore, it concluded.

Mr Chong said all members agreed unanimously on the report.

On why the committee has called for what he described as "strong measures", Dr Janil pointed to the nature of online falsehoods.

"They are more easily believed, they travel further, they travel faster and they are much harder to dislodge. We need measures that have the same degree of strength to counter the asymmetry that exists between the falsehoods and the truth that is out there."

State-sponsored operations: Singapore a target of hostile info campaigns
Fake news can jeopardise security, social cohesion, and can inflict long-term damage
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

Singapore needs a national strategy to combat fake news campaigns run by foreign operators to safeguard its sovereignty and security, a parliamentary Select Committee has said.

The committee, which released a report on its findings and recommendations on Thursday (Sept 20), noted that Singapore has been and will continue to be a target of hostile information campaigns.

Speaking at a media briefing on the report, committee chairman Charles Chong said online falsehoods are "pervasive and can affect different aspects of our country: national security, racial harmony, democratic processes, social cohesion and trust in public institutions".

It is easy to underestimate the problem of fake news, added committee member Janil Puthucheary.

Recent events around the world, however, have shown that operators behind disinformation campaigns can translate online falsehoods into real-world consequences, he said.

"The initial falsehoods may seem ridiculous, trivial, small in the larger scheme of things, but they have been cleverly played on, used to exaggerate and exacerbate local grievances and to manipulate the sentiment of people," he added.

In its report, the committee provided three key observations on deliberate online falsehoods in relation to Singapore.

One is that foreign disinformation has likely occurred and can be expected to continue to take place here.

Two, Singapore's societal conditions are fertile ground for "slow-drip" falsehoods that can cause long-term damage.

Three, regional conflicts can contribute to Singapore's vulnerability to falsehoods.

The committee said it received evidence suggesting that "a range of state and non-state actors" are engaging in disinformation operations here, and that these operators have used online news articles and social media to influence Singaporeans and legitimise another state's international actions.

The committee learnt that Singapore was the top cyber-attack target in the world when it hosted the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.

Singapore experienced close to 40,000 attacks, 88 per cent of them launched from "a particular foreign state", the committee said, without identifying the state in question.

The recent hacking of SingHealth's databases, which led to the theft of the private data of 1.5 million patients, was also an indicator of the threat Singapore faces, the committee said.

"Both disinformation and cyber attacks are part of a spectrum of non-military tools commonly used in information warfare."

In fact, the committee said, information warfare against Singapore is a more attractive strategy than conventional warfare, as the country's digital connectedness allows foreign actors easy reach to wide segments of the population.

There are also "cyber armies" that have been deployed to aid sectarian or political agendas in several neighbouring countries, and these can easily be repurposed and deployed against Singapore, it added.

Furthermore, Singapore's diverse society provides fertile ground for insidious "slow drip" falsehoods to cause longer-term damage to society, the committee said.

These "low-level" falsehoods, which could be about a particular ethnic, religious or immigrant group, could raise tensions little by little. Emotions may not be high initially, but falsehoods could make them stronger, the committee said.

Singapore is also vulnerable because regional conflicts could lead to tensions spilling over into the country, the committee said.

For example, it noted that when local media outlets reported on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, their social media pages attracted Islamophobic comments from Myanmar-based accounts, triggering backlash from accounts that appeared to belong to Singaporean Muslim users, the committee said.

One clear theme that emerged from the expert evidence the committee received is that the "visible hand" of the state is needed to fight fake news, it added.

For example, in the lead-up to France's 2017 presidential election, key French government agencies took pre-emptive steps to counter fake news operations and cyber attacks.

Examples included offering practical advice to presidential candidates and reducing the use of vulnerable technological products during the election.

"This reportedly ensured that certain presidential candidates and also the general public were well prepared for such attacks, minimising the impact these attacks eventually had on French voters," the committee said.

Measures against falsehoods need not curtail freedom of speech
Calibrated approach can allay fear of curbs on free speech
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

A calibrated approach can be adopted to address concerns that overly broad measures to tackle online falsehoods may curtail free speech, said a Select Committee set up to look into fake news.

The committee had also considered if the freedom of speech protects falsehoods, whether legal action would have a "chilling effect" on speech and whether legal action would undermine critical thinking.

"No representor gave any convincing reason why falsehoods should be protected by the right to freedom of speech," the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods said in a 176-page report released yesterday.

The committee said it found arguments on why online falsehoods harm democracy and are not worthy of protection useful. These falsehoods hurt democracy as they crowd out reliable news and divert attention from substantive issues, among other things.

"Online falsehoods harm democracy and the genuine contestation of ideas in the 'marketplace'; the latter is what the freedom of speech serves to protect," it added.

As for whether laws against online falsehoods would have a chilling effect, it noted that social news website Mothership testified that it did not see a drop in traffic, or engagement on its platform, as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime.

"The prospect of a 'chilling effect' should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all," the report said.

On concerns that laws against fake news would affect critical thinking, the committee said some saw legal action as complementary to media literacy education.

At a press conference yesterday on the committee's report, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also addressed concerns about free speech, saying the committee had discussed extensively the balance between what is private and what has public impact.

While some members, like himself, were very concerned about the impact of falsehoods on public institutions, others such as Mr Pritam Singh raised the need to strike a balance between dealing with that and personal messages that do not have a public impact, said Mr Shanmugam, a committee member.

"If you are sending a message to somebody... who doesn't have a wider circulation, and it is a purely private message about your family, then we should be careful about intervening in that," he added.

Mr Singh, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said one theme which runs through the committee's report is the need for a "multidimensional response" to falsehoods. This includes public education, strengthening trust between people and communities, and supporting quality journalism.

"I think it is very hard to disagree with the forward-looking and progressive nature of some of these recommendations," said the Workers' Party MP.

He said the measures proposed ought to be calibrated, and it is not one response for any online falsehood.

This is to distinguish between the harm that a potential falsehood or deliberate online falsehood will cause, and something said by a misinformed individual, he added.

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods: The threat

How online trolls divided societies
Report cites examples of how disinformation campaigns sought to undermine public trust
By Charissa Yong, Regional Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

In 2016, two groups of protesters showed up in front of the Islamic Da'wah Centre in Houston, Texas, in support of two diametrically opposite causes.

Donning "White Lives Matter" T-shirts, the first group of 10 protested against what they called the Islamisation of America. The second group of 60, waving signs declaring "Muslims are welcome here", were there in counter-protest to the first.

Both sides were galvanised by their respective Facebook groups - Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America - and even urged to bring firearms to the protest, though Houston police made sure the protest did not turn violent.

What neither group knew was that a Russia-linked organisation known as the Internet Research Agency had been behind them both and, at the cost of a paltry US$200 (S$274), had succeeded in stirring up a very real security threat.

The case was one of several examples cited in the report of the Select Committee released yesterday to show how deliberate disinformation operations aim to widen social divides and undermine democratic processes and institutions.

Such online falsehoods can even undermine national sovereignty and harm national security, leading experts like Prague-based European Values think-tank representative Jakub Janda to call them a "national security threat".

The report summed up how the committee heard from disinformation researchers about how the campaigns allegedly conducted by Russia had posed a serious threat to countries including the United States, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and France.

In another example, known Russian trolls ran Twitter and Instagram accounts about the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings, widening the divide between each side.

For instance, some trolls spread the message that activists working on the Black Lives Matter movement who disrespected the American flag should "be immediately shot", while other trolls subtly incited violence by suggesting that "Black people have to (practise) an eye for an eye. The law enforcement officers keep harassing and killing us without consequences".

Other disinformation operations also sought to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, and to denigrate and harm presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's electability by spreading negative, untrue stories about her.

Mr Janda noted that "disinformation operations often have the goal of undermining public trust towards democratic institutions, and causing the public to lose trust in institutions like the free media and democratic political parties", said the report.

In Ukraine, Russian disinformation operations also found considerable success.

These operations "allegedly fuelled existing tensions between different communities, discredited Ukraine's standing in other EU countries, and even resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and lives in Ukraine".

For instance, Ukraine's relationship with the Netherlands was allegedly poisoned by Russian media outlets, which spread the false story that the Ukrainian military had shot down Flight MH17, which killed 193 Dutch citizens.

When the Netherlands held a referendum in April 2016 to approve a trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, few people turned out to vote, and two-thirds of those who did rejected the agreement.

Almost 60 per cent of the Dutch who voted against the trade pact opposed it because they believed the Ukrainian government was corrupt, according to a poll cited by a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official. Also, 19 per cent of them believed the unproven claim that Ukraine had shot down MH17.

Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, who is one of the founders of fact-checking organisation StopFake, argued that disinformation operations in Ukraine ultimately resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and Ukrainian lives by fuelling the annexation of Crimea and armed conflicts in Eastern Ukraine.

He cited how many of the Russian-linked fighters who fought on Ukrainian soil reportedly said they were motivated to fight by Russian television coverage of supposed Ukrainian "atrocities" against Russian-speaking citizens.

Mr Deynychenko said that such foreign disinformation campaigns by state actors "aim to weaken a country, reduce its ability to resist foreign aggression, change its foreign policy and create conditions for its inclusion in a foreign country's sphere of influence", added the report.

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods: How to respond

Vital features spelt out for proposed laws
Countering the spread of online falsehoods
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

New laws are necessary for the authorities to act swiftly against the spread of online falsehoods, but such legislation needs to be crafted carefully to target only those who knowingly and intentionally spread them, said a parliamentary Select Committee studying ways to deal with fake news.

It also spelt out other vital features for these proposed laws.

They need to respect personal and private communications and avoid harming public interest, and they cannot be too broad, as they must take into account that "falsehoods can appear in a broad spectrum of circumstances, from deliberately fabricated content to satire and parodies".

The laws should be able to stop an online falsehood from going viral, and do so in a matter of hours.

In addition, the person making such decisions should be effective and credible, and the safeguards adequate to ensure due process and the proper exercise of power.

These moves will assure people of the integrity of the decision-making process, said the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

It also suggested that the new laws include powers to take down and block access to online fake news and require corrections and notifications to be tagged to it. There must also be judicial oversight where appropriate.

The committee also urged the Government to identify extra measures, including legislation, that may be needed to safeguard election integrity, citing that Russia-based purveyors of disinformation were found to have meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.

Another recommendation is for the Government to implement monitoring and early-warning mechanisms that can help determine when and how to intervene to stop the spread of an online falsehood.

The committee also called on the Government to consider what powers it would need to set up a "de-monetisation regime" that will cut off digital advertising revenue to those who start and spread online falsehoods and require them to repay the ill-gotten gains.

"This should cover the 'hired guns' who are paid by others to create and spread online falsehoods," said the committee.

It is an innovative proposal, said professor of media and communication Lim Sun Sun of the Singapore University of Technology and Design. "While demonetisation has been undertaken by private entities, I don't think it has been required by legislation in other countries," she added.

She believed that such a law could work with the cooperation of platform providers.

"If, for example, a YouTube vlogger profits from advertisements hosted on his channel, and his videos contain content that is deliberately calculated to mislead to attract more views, the amount of commercial gain he derives can be quantified and YouTube, as the content host, could then withhold payment to him," she added.

The committee also said criminal sanctions should be imposed on fake news perpetrators, albeit only in justifiable circumstances.

For example, there should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability - intent or knowledge - in line with established criminal justice principles.

It added: "There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder and the erosion of trust in public institutions."

Prof Cherian George, who gave evidence to the committee and is now a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, noted the report recommends a holistic approach that is not over-reliant on hard law.

"It is especially noteworthy that the committee acknowledges that the right to free speech serves the same democratic ideals as discouraging disinformation," he said, adding that the people and MPs should "scrutinise any resulting Bill because the Government tends to write over-broad laws that can be easily abused to stifle criticism".

Laws needed for tech companies to act against online falsehoods
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

Technology companies may have to come under laws compelling them to act against false information online, with the Government accepting in principle recommendations by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

"Legislation would be needed particularly for measures to be taken in response to an online falsehood, since Facebook, Google and Twitter have a policy of generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false," the 10-member committee said in a report released yesterday.

Facebook earlier expressed concern about new laws, noting that Singapore already has laws to address hate speech and the spread of false news. Twitter said as well that no single company, or governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth. But this did not stop the committee from suggesting that the authorities consider legislation, among other measures.

It also asked the Government to consider if there is a need for new areas of regulation - such as on the use of personal data - and approaches like developing a voluntary code of practice to tackle falsehoods.

"As the evidence suggests, technology companies are in control of the design of their platforms and products, through which they have profited greatly," it said. "It follows that they should bear responsibility for preventing their platforms and products from contributing to the creation and proliferation of online falsehoods, which can harm the public interest."

The laws and regulations proposed are aimed at achieving three broad objectives, the committee said.

The first is to prevent platforms from being misused to spread falsehoods. This can be done by prioritising credible content and de-prioritising proven falsehoods to limit circulation, the committee said. Companies can also shut down accounts and networks designed to amplify falsehoods.

They should also prevent their advertising tools and services from being used to spread falsehoods, and increase transparency by allowing users to see content sponsors. There could be public registers of political advertisements as well, and companies should boost users' accountability.

The second objective is to build a "cleaner" online information system and foster an informed public.

This can be done by helping users assess the credibility of information, and informing users of how platforms' design affect the content they receive.

The third objective is for companies to show accountability. They should come clean about the nature and extent of online falsehoods spread on their platforms, and the effectiveness of their responses.

Companies should undergo regular voluntary reporting and independent audits, said the committee.

In response, Twitter said it looks forward to the authorities' continued engagement with the industry, while Google said it is committed to addressing false information in collaboration with governments, media and civil society. Facebook said its efforts to counter falsehoods will "never be finished", adding that it has taken steps to combat falsehoods, such as by removing fake accounts and disrupting the financial incentives for those behind false news.

Asked about technology firms' potential resistance to legislation yesterday, Select Committee member K. Shanmugam, who is Law and Home Affairs Minister, said companies are also in discussions with legislatures in other countries. "There is increasing recognition on all sides that there has to be responsibility on the part of tech companies, and that governments have to intervene to ensure that responsibility."

Committee member Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport, and Communications and Information, added: "If our objectives and our intent are all aligned to create a trusted space, trusted platforms, citizen engagement... I can't see why the tech companies would not want to find ways to enable that... We have to have a negotiation about what they think is possible and what we think is necessary."

Alternative and mainstream media should follow same standards of fairness, accuracy and integrity
Quality journalism and fact-checking
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

In the fight against fake news, mainstream news organisations and alternative media platforms should abide by the same professional standards of journalism, while journalists of all stripes should update their fact-checking skills and be trained to provide accurate news.

These recommendations are part of a swathe of countermeasures against fake news that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods unveiled yesterday.

Professional journalism standards, it said, include ensuring fairness, accuracy and intellectual integrity in reporting, and these standards should apply to both mainstream news outlets and alternative media that operate only online.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, a member of the panel, said this addresses the issue of which journalism skills a person should possess before he can be considered a journalist.

If someone is acting like a news platform or as a media outlet, that person has a responsibility to be professional, said Dr Janil.

To ramp up the training of journalists, the committee urged news organisations, technology companies and institutes of higher learning to consider ways to provide such learning opportunities, such as courses and workshops.

The training should include techniques for ensuring accuracy in a new and rapidly evolving digital news environment, it added.

Journalists, on their part, need to "proactively find ways to update their skills in digital fact-checking and arm themselves with knowledge of how online falsehoods and disinformation campaigns work", the committee said.

It noted that accurate journalism helps prevent otherwise credible news sources from becoming agents in amplifying deliberate online falsehoods, whether intentional or not.

Some who gave their views to the panel, like Professor Kalina Bontcheva from the computer science department of Sheffield University in England, said the mainstream media had sometimes published blatant lies.

Others stressed the importance of maintaining a trusted mainstream media because accurate journalism provides an option for news-seekers who might otherwise turn to websites peddling false news or other questionable online platforms.

The report said: "Quality journalism is a pillar of a society's information ecosystem. It ensures effective communication between the Government and the people, and between different segments of society. It also helps the public understand the world around them."

It cited the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found there is greater trust in mainstream media sources for general news and information than in news from various online and social media platforms.

Recognising a need for greater communication between the Government and news platforms committed to quality journalism, including alternative media, the committee said it would help build a relationship of trust that is committed to the pursuit of truth.

Dr Janil said: "We hope that over time, we can see the quality of journalism in all kinds of platforms improve, and that will be good for professional journalists, and for us as a citizenry."

Call to set up fact-checking coalition
Quality journalism and fact-checking
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

A fact-checking coalition of news organisations and industry partners should be formed to swiftly and credibly debunk falsehoods, the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods proposed yesterday.

The group could be made up of media and technology organisations, with these otherwise competing entities pooling resources and tapping their expertise to fact-check falsehoods quickly and effectively, the committee said in its report.

But the jury is out on the role the Government should play in such a coalition, the report added.

The committee noted the diverging opinions expressed during public hearings on fake news earlier this year regarding the State's role in fact-checking.

Some felt that if the Government were involved, the initiative could be perceived as spreading propaganda rather than unbiased facts.

National University of Singapore law undergraduate Shaun Lim argued that a non-independent initiative may not be able to objectively conduct fact-checks when issues of politics or governance are involved. Typically, these are the areas that require fact-checking.

Others, on the other hand, felt the Government should be involved as State-backed information is needed to debunk falsehoods. Representatives from media organisations Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Channel NewsAsia testified that the Government has to play a part in the fact-checking process for matters concerning national security.

The committee urged the Government to consider its role in fact-checking, keeping in mind the high trust people have in public institutions and the possible resource constraints faced by the coalition.

"Ultimately, whether a fact-checking coalition will be trusted and relied upon by people depends on its credibility and its effectiveness," said the committee.

"A fact-checking coalition that ends up being a partisan, propaganda mouthpiece of the Government of the day will very quickly lose its credibility, be of no utility to people and, as one representor pointed out, end up damaging the Government's own reputation in the process."

The committee concluded that a fact-checking coalition must have enough independence and competence, and must be committed to presenting the truth to the people. The suggestion for a coalition was one of several mooted by the 170 individuals and organisations, including SPH, which made representations to the panel.

In response to queries, Ms Han Yong May, editor of SPH's Chinese Media Group NewsHub, said the coalition will help raise awareness and curb the spread of harmful falsehoods that affect Singapore's social and national interests.

Said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH's English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times: "SPH believes that good journalism, which is credible and trusted by our readers, as well as informed and media-savvy citizens are key answers to the challenge of dealing with fake news.

"We are glad that our proposals have been taken on board by the committee. We stand ready to work with other media players to contribute to this wherever possible."

A Mediacorp spokesman said it is studying the committee's extensive report closely.

The committee, however, noted that fact-checking may have a limited effect on those with entrenched views.

Said panel member Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development: "We have to recognise that fact-checking could potentially face some limitations... There were various representors who told us that falsehood travels faster than truth."

Public institutions should respond promptly to falsehoods
Nurturing informed public, boosting trust
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

Public institutions should respond promptly to fake news wherever possible, and provide information to the public in a timely fashion, said a parliamentary Select Committee tasked with finding ways to fight online falsehoods.

They should also pre-empt situations where the public might be misled by falsehoods and put out information in advance to tackle this.

On top of this, communication to the public must be "in clear and comprehensible terms", the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods said in its report released yesterday.

It noted that strong trust in public institutions "makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect", and conversely, "mistrust in public institutions facilitates the uptake of falsehoods".

The committee said it has made recommendations to the Government to review how it communicates information to the public in response to online falsehoods. They include reviewing whether the communication is transparent, for instance, when providing reasons for actions it has taken or the reasons for not disclosing information to the public.

A summary of the recommendations was also submitted to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which responded with a seven-page document listing its efforts to strengthen public trust and governance.

Another area highlighted by the Select Committee was in strengthening trust among people and communities. Falsehoods have the ability to undermine social cohesion, the committee said, and this has been seen in other countries.

"The realities of Singapore's diverse social landscape create wide opportunities for falsehoods to undermine Singapore's social cohesion... Any source of difference, including racial, ideological differences and social inequalities, can be exploited, turning cracks into chasms," the committee said.

It acknowledged that there are various initiatives and platforms in Singapore, such as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, that serve as bridges between different communities and deepen mutual understanding between them.

But Singapore's efforts to maintain social harmony will need to evolve to address new problems.

The committee recommended that organisations and initiatives which promote social cohesion consider providing clarifications and information on distortions and falsehoods that can undermine harmony.

They should look into using people-to-people interaction and communication, mediating discussion among different groups and creating "safe spaces" for exchanging views on sensitive issues. These were among the various principles recommended by representatives to the committee.

The Government should also consider supporting or conducting research to understand society's vulnerabilities, the committee said.

National framework to equip public with skills to discern truth
Nurturing informed public, boosting trust
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

A national framework should be implemented to educate the people and equip them with the skills to discern truth from fake news, a parliamentary Select Committee has recommended.

It also suggested that the Government should support and encourage ground-up campaigns and initiatives to combat online falsehoods.

These are among 22 recommendations in a report released yesterday by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

In coming up with its findings, the 10-member committee took in written representations and evidence given at public hearings.

The committee said that public education is an "essential long-term measure to ensure that citizens are well-informed, able to discern truth from falsehood and able to interrogate information sources effectively and critically".

It noted that education has to reach all segments of society, including the less educated and less Internet-savvy. This means appropriate mediums must be used.

In its report, the committee listed initiatives by various parties - such as the National Library Board, Media Literacy Council and Education Ministry - in raising media and digital literacy. It said that existing initiatives are a "strong base to build on".

A committee member, Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam, said: "We are suggesting that whatever existing efforts (there are) be reviewed and be looked at to ensure that they are effective in dealing with... new developments in digital technology."

Ms Rahayu, who was speaking at a press conference yesterday, said the curriculum in schools can be expanded.

Students should be taught about the motivations and agendas of those who spread falsehoods, which will help them understand why these parties do it.

The curriculum should also cover moral and civic education to foster constructive public discourse and responsible online behaviour.

"Also, we are encouraging critical thinking... These are important skills and need to be continually updated," she said.

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, also a committee member, said it is important to include the wider population, such as the elderly, in the education efforts. There must be adequate resources to target those who are non-English speakers, he added.

In its report, the committee said that having a national framework will help to coordinate and guide public education initiatives. The framework will help coordinate the efforts across government so the outreach covers all segments of society, it added.

Committee member Chia Yong Yong yesterday highlighted the importance of understanding the impact of deliberate disinformation.

"A great part of what we need to do is to persuade people that we are facing serious issues and that each individual has the responsibility to take action to verify information, to think critically and also to respond responsibly," she said.

Thum Ping Tjin lied about credentials, admitted to flawed research
No weight given to historian's views as he was found lacking in credibility
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2018

The Select Committee tasked to study fake news said it did not find historian Thum Ping Tjin to be credible and gave no weight to his views.

It gave three reasons in its report yesterday: Dr Thum lied about his academic credentials, admitted that his research on historical events surrounding the 1963 Operation Coldstore was flawed, and failed to follow up with documents he said he would send to the committee after the hearings.

When the committee sought public views early this year on deliberate online falsehoods, he had written in, saying fake news had not had much of an impact in Singapore, save for one major exception: Operation Coldstore, when over 100 leftist politicians and unionists were arrested and detained. He added that the People's Action Party had used fake news in that operation to detain political opponents.

In an addendum to its report, the committee said Dr Thum had referred to himself as a research fellow in history at Oxford University.

When he was questioned at the public hearings, he said he had switched to anthropology, and held a visiting professorship in anthropology at the university.

The Parliament Secretariat also found that he had described himself online as a visiting research fellow in history in the department of anthropology.

Dr Thum, however, never was a research fellow in history at Oxford, said the committee.

It also said Oxford confirmed he was never an employee of the university, but was a visiting fellow with the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group in the School of Anthropology.

Before that, he was a visiting scholar, not a research fellow, at the Oxford Centre for Global History, another unpaid position, it added.

In his visiting scholar arrangements, he had certain privileges in return for a fee paid to Oxford.

"Those visiting arrangements are different from the picture Dr Thum sought to paint with his claims to be a 'research fellow in history' and the holder of a 'visiting professorship' - a picture that he held an academic position of some seniority with Oxford University," it said.

The committee also noted that when presented with statements by historical figures like Communist Party of Malaya chief Chin Peng, he acknowledged that they contradicted his research paper's position that there was no evidence of communist involvement in the progressive left in Singapore in the 1960s.

He also admitted that he disregarded the writings of some senior cadres of the Communist Party.

And when presented with declassified British documents that he had examined for a paper he had cited in his written submission, he admitted that his presentation of these documents was misleading.

Speaking at a media briefing on the committee's report yesterday, Select Committee member K. Shanmugam, who is Law and Home Affairs Minister, said: "Since his perspective was unique, we thought we would set out what we thought of his representation."

The committee also outlined events that happened after the hearings. In April, an open letter to committee chairman Charles Chong was circulated online, with signatures from academics from different countries.

It expressed "deep concern" at the committee's questioning of Dr Thum, and its wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore.

Later that month, the trustees of Project South-east Asia stated their support for Dr Thum, one of the project's trustees.

The addendum said both the open letter and trustees' statement "cast aspersions on the committee's process (and) were based on wrong facts and premises".

It added that at the hearing, Dr Thum agreed to come back to the committee with two documents: Special Branch records he relied on for his research paper and a publication in which he had indirectly critiqued a statement by Chin Peng.

He submitted only the former.

The addendum also said Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Without Borders were invited to the hearings, but they declined.

Mr Shanmugam said the committee thought their excuses for not turning up were "contrived".

Both had initially accepted the invitation, but HRW later said its representative had made travel plans that "could not be changed", and Reporters Without Borders cited "organisational reasons".

The committee offered both groups the option of a video conference call, but neither took it up.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh responds to critics on the singling out of Thum Ping Tjin
The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2018

Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh has responded to criticisms that a parliamentary committee tasked to study the issue of fake news singled out historian Thum Ping Tjin, saying that Dr Thum, too, had done the same with the People's Action Party (PAP) in his representation.

"As much as I agree PJ was singled out, he also singled out the PAP for special treatment in his representation," he wrote on Facebook last Saturday following a comment by freelance journalist Kirsten Han.

"There was no way they were going to let that stand on the parliamentary record, unrebutted. Singling out the PAP was PJ's prerogative, consequences included."

Dr Thum had written in his submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods earlier this year that "'fake news' has not, historically, had much of an impact in Singapore - with one major exception: The People's Action Party (PAP) Government has, historically, spread 'fake news' for narrow party-political gain".

He said that in the 1963 Operation Coldstore, the PAP Government lied about radical communist conspiracies to detain its political opponents.

In public hearings in March, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who was on the Select Committee, questioned Dr Thum for almost six hours on his research. Last week, the committee, of which Mr Singh is a member, issued a report outlining the threat of fake news and recommending ways Singapore could deal with the problem.

It also included an addendum which, among other things, accused Dr Thum of lying about his academic credentials.

Last Friday, Mr Singh wrote about the report on his Facebook page, highlighting his view that Singapore should target only falsehoods distributed to undermine a society, and that any measures should not reasonably be expected to stifle a frank and healthy exchange of opinion required for a functioning democracy.

Some Facebook users asked him to elaborate on his views about the committee's dealings with Dr Thum. In response to Facebook user Bertrand Seah, Mr Singh said: "I have views on how the Select Committee could have dealt with the oral testimony differently. But there are eight other elected MPs who have their own views, too."

Ms Han said in a comment that she had "expected the WP to show more backbone in taking a stance against bullying".

Mr Singh replied: "I can't get into the Select Committee's processes etc, so I can't say anything more about the PJ imbroglio then I already have.

"But I will say this episode may not be the best one to use as a barometer for the WP's stance against bullying, but I can respect that you have a different view about it and why you feel so strongly about it."

Mr Singh also engaged commenters on the committee's broader report and recommendations, which include introducing new laws to give the Government powers to stop the spread of fake news and impose criminal sanctions on those who deliberately start and disseminate fake news that leads to serious harm.

A few commenters raised the concern that such new laws would stifle free speech.

Mr Singh responded: "Any new legislation will be an exercise in redefining norms. But the extent to which technology and particularly social media has weaponised information and even compromised democratic institutions cannot be ignored, whether you support the opposition or not.

"The real point you make is about the extent of those legislative powers and how they ought to be checked or circumscribed. That's a point I do not disagree with."

To another commenter who questioned the need for new laws, Mr Singh said: "The Select Committee's recommendations still have to be debated in Parliament. There is no law proposed as yet."

He added: "In the Select Committee, the challenge for me as an opposition politician of the WP is to accommodate and find a balance between many legitimate views."

War on fake news a long battle: Experts
Convincing people issue is a serious threat to security among the challenges, they say
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent and Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Sep 2018

The fight against fake news will be long and daunting, with many challenges, such as convincing technology companies to accept new laws and impressing on people that fake news is a major security threat, experts said yesterday.

Deputy director of research Gillian Koh, of the Institute of Policy Studies, underlined especially the need for the Government to get across to the people the dangers posed by this new phenomenon.

"The interested public needs to trust that what is at stake, when the time comes for assertive action, is our national sovereignty and not that of a particular political party or sectoral group," she added.

These comments come one day after a parliamentary committee on deliberate online falsehoods unveiled its report that recommended 22 ways to thwart the threat.

One is for the Government to establish a national strategy against fake news campaigns run by foreign operators, to safeguard Singapore's sovereignty and security.

The report said Singapore has been and will continue to be a target of such operations.

Dr Koh said an effective strategy will require international cooperation and resources to investigate hostile disinformation campaigns.

Even then, it will be tough to root out perpetrators whose strategies are insidious and subtle, and methods ever-changing as technology keeps advancing, she said.

But some believe it is crucial the Government first convince Singaporeans that fake news is a serious and pervasive problem.

Security expert Shashi Jayakumar, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it will take many years for people to be instinctively alert to the threat.

It is not like terrorism where people are aware it is a matter of "not if, but when", he said. "To get this level of sensitisation to slow-drip issues like fake news is tremendously hard to do, because it's not tangible - you can't quantify it, in terms of, say, the number of terrorists or plots carried out," he added.

In a Facebook post yesterday, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said "too many Singaporeans are naive" about the threat of foreign-run disinformation campaigns, which he called a "fundamental national security issue".

"When I recently wrote about Chinese influence operations, the response was often angry and often echoed the line taken by the Chinese Embassy, in effect, 'Everyone does it'," he wrote. "That's somewhat akin to saying since many people beat their wives, wife-beating is OK."

He warned that these campaigns seek to "impose a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore and thus threatens our core social compact of multiracial meritocracy".

The committee also said technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter should take action against fake news, and suggested that new laws be enacted to compel them to take these steps.

Associate chair of research Alton Chua, of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, said these companies are likely to push back."The shift in their role from being platform or service providers to content policemen is not something they had expected."

Another key recommendation is for the Government to study measures, including new laws, to safeguard Singapore's election integrity.

MP Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communication and Information, said having safeguards is an important step, as the right to vote must be accompanied by the right to truthful information.

"If a country doesn't have means to combat information designed to deceive, then it can't provide an environment where democracy can function properly," he said.

Dr Jayakumar said the best solutions against fake news are to develop critical-thinking skills and boost social cohesion and resilience among the people. This is a long-term process, he added.

Mr Kausikan shared the view, saying in his Facebook post: "The best defence is an educated public."

* 4 in 5 Singaporeans confident in spotting fake news but 90 per cent wrong when put to the test: Ipsos survey
90% of Singaporeans identify at least one out of five fake headlines as real in online survey
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2018

Four in five Singaporeans say that they can confidently spot fake news, but when put to the test, more than 90 per cent mistakenly identified at least one out of five fake headlines as being real.

These were among the findings of an online survey released yesterday by global independent market research agency Ipsos, which aims to understand the susceptibility of Singaporeans towards fake news.

Ipsos said the survey showed there was no correlation between people's confidence in their ability to detect fake news and their actual ability. A total of 750 Singapore citizens and permanent residents, aged 15 to 65, participated in the survey between July 30 and Aug 2.

When asked whether they were confident in their ability to tell the difference between legitimate news and fake news, 79 per cent said they were at least "somewhat confident".

Younger Singaporeans and university graduates were more confident about this, the survey found.

But when the participants were given 10 news headlines from digital channels and asked to indicate which ones were fake, only 43 per cent correctly identified two or fewer fake headlines. Of the 10, half were fake. In fact, 91 per cent had incorrectly chosen at least one of the five fake headlines as being real.

In response to media queries, an Ipsos spokesman said the fake headlines were sourced from, a satirical news site.

Examples of the fake headlines included "Orchard Road smoking ban to improve suburban malls' attractiveness" and "Increasing food costs will deter eating, help Singaporeans fight obesity".

Meanwhile, almost half of the Singaporeans surveyed said they had been previously duped by a news report they first believed to be real.

Younger Singaporeans between 15 and 24 years old were particularly susceptible, with more than half of them (55 per cent) admitting that this had happened to them.

Also, more than a quarter of Singaporeans said that if they disagreed with a news story, it was likely fake.

Online sites, including social media platforms, have become key sources of information for many Singaporeans, according to Ipsos.

About 60 per cent access news via Facebook, 53 per cent on other social media platforms and 52 per cent read newspapers' websites.

Only 38 per cent get their news from broadcast/cable television, 30 per cent tune in to news radio and 14 per cent listen to talk radio.

Despite the fact that Singaporeans enjoy getting their news from digital media, participants still relied on traditional news platforms for accurate news, with 60 per cent saying they trusted these platforms "a fair amount", and about 20 per cent saying they had "a great deal" of trust.

While they may be reliant on social media as a news source, Singaporeans are discerning about who is sharing the information online.

Traditional Singapore news media companies, as well as government ministries and statutory boards, are the most trusted sources on social media, the survey found.

Meanwhile, sponsored posts have the least credibility.

While the majority of Singaporeans value veracity of the news above all else (77 per cent), 14 per cent place greater weight on the ability of the news to evoke emotions, while 9 per cent appreciate if the content aligns with their beliefs.

Associate research director of Ipsos in Singapore Robert McPhedran said the research corroborated the Government's strong concern about fake news. "Despite their high levels of confidence, all Singaporeans - irrespective of educational attainment and media consumption habits - find it difficult to discern between real and fake news." He added that it was "a serious social issue", with the proliferation of digital media here and the dire consequences of fake news seen globally.

Mr Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the survey's results reflected a trend that was not unique to Singapore.

"By definition, news is something we haven't heard before. So, if we don't have a reason or opportunity to search for verification, it is really very hard to decide on one's own whether news is true, especially if it is something we want to believe."

Mr Ang said the survey results were a good reminder for Singaporeans to treat what they read with healthy scepticism.

He added that taking time to verify news that resonates with what people believe "goes against our nature, but if we want to avoid spreading misinformation, it is something we should do".

Additional reporting by Timothy Goh

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures

Select Committee to look into fake news threat; public hearings in March 2018

Report of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood -20 Sep 2018

Government Accepts In-Principle Select Committee’s Recommendation For Multi-Pronged Response To Tackle Deliberate Online Falsehoods - 20 Sep 2018

Select Committee public hearings:
- 14 - 16 March 2018
- 22 - 23 March 2018
- 27 - 29 March 2018

Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation; History is not the preserve of historians

Foreign interference in Singapore politics: ACRA rejects company application from Thum Ping Tjin, Kirsten Han; says it has foreign funding links to George Soros

Tackling the real issue of fake news

No comments:

Post a Comment