I applaud the hearings convened by the Select Committee on the issue of "Fake News" which took place over the course of the last week. With allegations of Russian interference in the US elections and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal capturing worldwide attention, the notion of "Fake News" is indeed the issue du jour for 2018.
I think it is safe to say that no one has the complete answer to this highly nuanced issue. Technology is an ever-evolving machine that is never in stasis. It is also important to note that both perpetrators and accusers alike have their own agendas. It is therefore crucial to remember that this is not a black or white matter.
The term "Fake News" is largely made a household name by none other than President Trump who has arguably used this term to describe anything that does not suit his image. While some of the news that has been spread on him may well indeed have been fabricated, we should be mindful that the term can be used as a tool to bury all manner of sin.
Another point to consider is who should be the arbiter of what constitutes "Fake News"? What if the news is largely true but contains a few inaccuracies? While it can be described as sloppy, will it also be considered "fake"? Is there a possibility that we may end up missing the forest for the trees if we take the idea of "Fake News" too technically? Do we run the risk of disregarding a solid story because of a few inaccuracies? Take that a step further, will a sensitive political exposés be swept under the guise of fake news and discredited because of a few inaccuracies?
Where do we draw the line?
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam is a big proponent for legislation to control the perpetuation of "Fake News". In particular, he has highlighted his concerns for foreign influence in the domestic policies of Singapore. Singapore while prosperous and developed is not a world super power like Russia, China or the US. Are there really so many foreign agents wanting to interfere in our domestic policies? World interest in Singapore is largely centred on trade and trade relies on a stable government. Would foreign countries really want to cause instability within the Singapore government? Somehow, I have my doubts.
It seems to me that while the minister may be concerned with foreign interference, the end result will be the unfortunate dulling of the alternative media.
Our world is a globalised one. Singapore is a country of immigrants which has always welcomed the international exchange of ideas. Indeed, many of the experts that were invited to the Select Committee hearings were foreigners themselves! Why this fear for foreign influence when foreign influence is absolutely welcomed and in fact vital to fill the gaps of where we do not have enough locally trained talent?
Most "Fake News" has been encountered on sites such as Facebook. It would also appear that readers are becoming savvier as to determining the veracity of a particular story. Technologies such as Facebook and WhatsApp are relatively new. It is completely logical for there to be some teething issues as people come to grips with the pros and cons of this new technology. If legislation is so quickly brought in, will it hinder organic development of our skill sets to weed out the fluff? Are we going to keep changing the law in order to keep up with technology? As said above, technology is always evolving and I bet my bottom dollar that our laws will not be able to keep up with the changes in technology. It follows that there will be gaps in our legislation as technology develops. What then? Would it not make sense to allow the online community some time to self regulate? Aren't there already other laws in place which can be used to tackle this issue?
I am not suggesting that there is one comprehensive answer to this problem. In fact, I think there isn't one clear cut solution. However, one thing I am clear on is that rushing to legislation is not always the answer.