MARUAH issues statement on conduct of discussion by the Select Committee and the discussions on Deliberate Online Falsehoods

MARUAH, a human rights organization, has issued a statement in response to the discussions held by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. The statement deals with two main areas, the conduct of the Select Committee and reflections on the Discussions on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs).

The Select Committee’s Conduct

In its statement, MARUAH expresses its dissatisfaction at the modus operandi and the approach that the Committee took on when it came to the hearings from some civil society actors, online media practitioners, technology providers, academics.

It noted that there were instances of aggression and a confrontational stance that underpinned the approach taken for these witnesses. “We believe in a non-confrontational approach to each other and accept challenges – even if they were terse – on the submissions made. But what we observed on March 27th and March 29th, the Committee was unrelentingly adverse to these particular witnesses.” wrote MARUAH.

MARUAH pointed out that the Select Committee’s terms of reference (TOR) shows that the Committee is to examine and report on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs) based on:

• the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online falsehoods;
• the motivations and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity;
• the consequences that the spread of online falsehoods can have on Singapore society, including to our institutions and democratic processes;
• how Singapore can prevent and combat online falsehoods, including looking at the principles that should guide Singapore’s response; and any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken.

MARUAH highlights that the Committee – most of whom are legally trained – by its TOR mandate, is engaged at the bequest of Parliament, to work on the submissions and with witnesses, giving them an opportunity to share their ideas, defend their positions, be challenged on the substance of their submissions, and co-create possible solution, if one goes by the TOR. Both parties – the Committee and the witnesses – in carrying out this role act in good faith for the cause of dealing with DOFs.

It pointed out that while the Committee had prepared well for the sessions, having many samples of historical information, examples of online content, academic research and studies done by various institutes, witnesses had also come prepared to defend their submissions and when challenged, to accept reflections on their submission, share suggestions and solutions. MARUAH states that in the sessions it observed, the Committee was overly focused, through a process of intense interrogation, on showing that the witnesses were propagators of ‘falsehoods’ or sharing ‘falsehoods’ as online content providers.

The methods used by the Committee were: to elicit, frequently only a “yes” or “no” response to the questions posed; inconsistent in giving space to witnesses to elaborate, qualify or make an exposition on the remarks made to them; to make a demand on the witnesses to respond immediately to the extracts of examples, that were shared during the sessions; often disallowing any misgivings or queries that witnesses wished to make or raise.

Whilst MARUAH agrees that the TOR does not prescribe a modus operandi and an approach for the Committee to employ with the witnesses but it noted that the Committee functioned, unnecessarily, in a disrespectful manner, at times, patronisingly and discriminatingly.

“These hearings, MARUAH ventures to say, were akin to being in a courtroom . Incidentally no witness in these hearing sessions is an accused party to any wrongdoing on ‘falsehoods’. And if the government were to feel that there was wrongdoing, this can be ascertained through a non-Parliamentary mechanism.”

MARUAH asks here if the modus operandi and the approach taken on by the Committee was within its remit as mandated by the TOR, based on the fact too that the DOFs seemed to have taken a backseat in the hearings, especially the one held on March 29th, 2018.

“We emphasise – CSOs, online media journalists, academia, students, and concerned individuals – are all trying to do what is good for Singapore. We need to build up a higher level of trust and even if we disagree, we (us included) ought to handle and manage the discourse well. At the end of the day we want that engagement, that submission of thoughts, expertise as we build up a society, together. We will continue our work and rise to the challenges, ahead. We need to build up that trust for each other and accept that no one institution has all the answers to make our society a better place and to be positive actor in the world.” wrote MARUAH.

Reflections on Discussions in relation to DOFs

Reports on the hearings all point to the challenge of deciphering what is the  ‘truth’ and what is ‘false’ by both visible and invisible content providers but MARUAH notes, “We must also remember the positive and pivotal role online media plays in widening our intellectual, psychological, emotional, spiritual, social capacities, beyond the traditional education routes of mainstream media and information sources from leaders, such as politicians, religious bodies, communities and civil society.”

While agreeing with many of the views expressed in the sessions, it also states that the definition of ‘falsehoods’ has not come closer, the specificity in the criteria to establish the constitution on ‘deliberate’ actions and on ‘severe harm’.

Supporting the suggestion made by a witness for an Independent Council to be set up, MARUAH asks that it be a multi-stakeholder body (inclusive of academics, online and mainstream media practitioners, tertiary level students) to function, establish and ascertain definitions of ‘falsehoods’ , ‘deliberate’, ‘serious harm’ and that this council also works out in relevant and realistic terms: assessing ‘falsehoods’; impact of ‘falsehoods’ on people and on infrastructure; develop follow-up remedial actions that could include preventive work through ‘fact-checking’; ensure there is transparency and a willingness to share information; develop clearer frameworks for regulated technology networks and service providers when it comes to content that can cause ‘extreme harm’ or ‘serious harm’,

A holistic approach in assessing the motivation behind ‘falsehoods’ is needed, said MARUAH as it needs to be contextualised beyond just the ‘race’ and/or ‘religion’ dimensions. It calls for a shift in government communications to widen the sphere and not overly focus on religious and racial ‘falsehoods’ as the trigger chords that jeopardise social cohesiveness.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the best tool for a population as people ingest much information, not just at face value, but to become a critical consumer, notes MARUAH and states that the level of success for a population to deal with ‘falsehoods’ is how well they are educated in critical thinking, how well they have acquired in-built interrogation mechanisms to question, analyse and manage knowledge inflows to achieve a well-thought through information output, that is fair and accurate for the better of people and the environment.

“We say this is the best defence mechanism that we need to build up their critical thinking, in a more determined manner, as this will give rise to diverse views, thoughts and behaviour.”

MARUAH urges that the Committee, if it were to make a recommendation for new legislative measures, the Draft Legislation ought to be shared, as was done with the Health Care Services Act, for further public consultations on the Draft legislation can take place before amending subsidiary legislation or tabling new legislation in Parliament.

It notes that it does not wish to have more restrictions through more legislation as Singapore already have enough legislation and now especially with advent of the approved Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (POSSPA). It also repeats a call to review current laws, and now include the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP).