by Colin Chua
I am normally part of the silent majority but I now feel extremely compelled write on the matter. I find that these hearings are achieving nothing and the government is oversimplifying the matter.
From what I can observe, the panel already has an established idea of what they want to achieve and is debating it instead of having a discussion. While that in itself is disturbing – since we are not attempting to reach a consensus or understanding of this topic – I choose to believe that the government and the public are still open to discussion and can be swayed.
This issue of online falsehoods brings into question the concepts of the dichotomy between true and false, the idea of fact being equal to truth and foremost how we decide the truth. These concepts would have philosophers, theologians and even scientist arguing since they are big issues at the core of how we perceive our world. This should indicate to all that this is a complex topic and any poor definitions or conclusions on the matter will have lasting ramifications if the ideas in this hearing are turned into legal ordinance.
I do not claim to have the answers to what truth is; if I did, there wouldn’t be a debate anymore. But, the fact that no one can arrive at a universal answer should already indicate a problem with perusing this idea.
What constitutes online falsehoods?
First, we should look at what constitutes an online falsehood, or at least what the panel in the hearing would establish it to be. “Hillary Clinton supports ISIS and runs a paedophile ring”, this is what was established as something that is clearly false. I would concur, but primarily because it is a simple assertion that can be expressed in the form of A is B. It states something as fact, we have evidence to prove that it is not, and therefore it is a falsehood. If A is not B, and that can be proven, then it is a falsehood.
However, you will seldom find that radical or outlandish content on the internet follows such a clear-cut format and even then, that is just scratching the surface. Facts unto themselves are meaningless since claiming Mrs Clinton supports ISIS on its own does not do anything. It’s only when you extrapolate from facts, that supporting ISIS would mean she is against America and unfit to be the president is when the complexity of the problem arises.
Instead of just stating claims, fake news will also attempt to create a narrative, which in essence are conclusions drawn from the interpretation of facts. This is what should concern us. While a minority of people may be taken in by unsubstantiated and outlandish claims, a majority will not since they will recognise it for what it is, an absurd statement that lacks any proof. A narrative, on the other hand, is what is compelling and what we should be concerned about since it can basis in real fact as well, just that it is interpreted differently.
Using the recent events of the American election as an example, we know that Mrs Clinton stored store emails on a personal server, against regulation and that they were compromised. Now, this is in fact, at least to our knowledge, from a reliable source and it is logical to say that denying this is point would constitute a falsehood. We now reach another problem, what do people make of this fact and does that constitute a truth?
You will have heard that detractors of Mrs Clinton have stated that she is untrustworthy, unpatriotic and a danger to the state based on her irresponsible handling of sensitive information. This is a plausible interpretation of what is fact. Is this conclusion an opinion? Perhaps, you could argue that it is. But then to censor this would constitute censorship of opinion which is an even more complex issue. So, what happens when someone presents this conclusion as the truth through the use of a narrative? Does this now constitute a falsehood since you disagree with the conclusion they drew from fact? Or is then now the truth since it has a factual basis?
We can see that the truth does not equate to facts – what is a fact is truth by definition, but the truth also encompasses what we conclude from facts. Therefore, there can be no one, sole Truth, not when it comes to the affairs of humans. There is a range, not from truth to falsehood as the panel establishes but a range from strong to weak interpretations. Thus, the government cannot adopt the position of believing there is only one truth since it simply doesn’t exist.
Unable to discern if it is fact due to it being a recent event
Not only is the idea of one sole truth untenable logically in the context the panel has brought up, it also undermines the concept of a multi-cultural society. Let us not forget that fundamentalist interpretations of religion preach themselves to be the one sole Truth, non-believers being heretics. Endorsing the idea of there being one sole Truth raises many questions, to say the least.
If we were to exclude anything pertaining to religion and have this new proposed legal ordinance confined to only secular truths (which frankly sounds absurd) it would now also be ineffective at combating a large portion of online falsehoods which has to do with religious extremism. Tangential to this idea of the one truth, we can already see in religion the problem of the interpretations not resulting in a single conclusion.
Using a familiar example, Catholics and Protestants differ in their religious doctrine which has resulted in war and persecution by both sides throughout history. Canonical debate aside, fundamentally both sects agree that the Bible is their set of facts. Yet, they have differing interpretations which are both are preached as the Truth. How can anyone responsibly say that either is false and the other is true? How can we say that these interpretations are just opinions?
The real matter is of course much more complex, but it illustrates the point. If the government were just to combat simple, false facts, it will achieve very little in curbing online falsehoods given how facts are used. Fake facts are just the tip of the iceberg, what we should be more concerned of is when someone is using real facts, or even a mixture of the real and fake to build their own narrative.
That is to say if we can even at all safely determine fact from falsehood. You may have noticed above that I added the caveat of “at least to our knowledge” since I am unable to discern if it is fact for all time due to it being a recent event and as a private citizen, I have restricted access to information. Does this make any conclusion I draw now that I express as the “truth” being retroactively proven false later a malicious falsehood? What if the information is intentionally being withheld from me? Does this make any conclusion I make base on what I know a falsehood if hidden information disproves it?
Establishing a law for falsehoods as potentially vague as this is irresponsible and leaves it open to abuse
This presents another problem. Jurisprudence commonly establishes that a law cannot be retroactively implemented, and in most circles someone with no malicious intent and without knowledge through no fault of their own isn’t considered to have committed a criminal act. Definition is a tricky part of this, since any laws that come out of this must be precise enough to be enforceable yet cannot be so wide as to criminalize other actions. Without a sufficiently precise definition it creates a scenario where people must censor themselves on almost every issue for fear of some withheld information making them liable of a criminal offense.
While the public should be responsible and check the accuracy of information before making a statement, after a certain point it becomes absurd to fear drawing a conclusion. New information always has the potential to come to light, sometimes even decades later. This should cause revisions to our conclusions instead of implying that previous facts or narratives were irresponsibly made since they were appropriate for the information available at the time. Even worse, someone who makes a statement may long after the fact be brought to court because of his once seemingly correct statement being proven false by some zealous academic. The feasibility of achieving a good definition is at best nebulous and at worst an Orwellian nightmare with a committee established to decide the Truth. Establishing a law as potentially vague as this is irresponsible and leaves it open to abuse.
But what do I know about jurisprudence? I am not a law student, not a lawyer, not a judge and certainly not a Minister for Law. I am; however, a student of History and we are in the business of dealing with sources and narrative. There is no one truth in history since facts can be interpreted differently and with so much information, choices must be made in how we represent it.
Just like how even our most esteemed news agencies seldom interview religious fundamentalist or terrorist, history chooses where we receive our information from based on their reliability and relevance to the topic at hand. This in itself is bias. When it comes to the affairs of humanity, no person can ever be unbiased. Keeping bias in check is, therefore, using logical reasoning and developed methodology to draw our conclusions, not the eradication of bias since it is impossible.
Seeing through extreme narratives can be challenging, especially when worded charmingly and apparently built upon extensive facts. By placing greater importance on the teaching of critical thinking skills, it fortifies the population against such outlandish interpretations. We shall not be easily swayed by absurd and questionable claims or extreme interpretation of facts. We shall be able to responsibly decide what to believe and who to trust when we exercise this.
I will not digress further into education policy since that is a separate and contentious issue. However, critical thinking and civic-mindedness are what makes civil society and the government should remember and utilize this. Greater transparency and access to information to allow the public to check and cross-reference their information would also improve the situation. Both may come into conflict with certain other aims or objectives of the government which I can only speculate on since I am not privileged enough to know them. After all, critical thinking once trained cannot be selectively applied and ultimately works on information coming from all sources. Transparency and greater access to information, to say the least, is something that the government has been thoroughly unwilling to do.
Censorship is not a feasible answer to online falsehoods
Ultimately, censorship is not a feasible answer. The same people who are highly susceptible to absurd conspiracies like Flat Earth and the Moon Landing Hoax will be those who are most easily taken in by fake news. In this modern age, total censorship is no longer possible and when they finally do find fake news they will be even more irrationally compelled to believe it since the government has literally been hiding it from them. These same people propagate this to others creating their own echo chamber and reinforcing their beliefs making it almost impossible to dislodge and resulting in it capturing a larger sect of the populace.
Before the advent of the internet or social media, these narratives were propagated by books, then by newspapers and most recently by pirate radio. As such, we should not be treating this as a new phenomenon that requires new laws but rather a reapplication of tools that have already proven effective.
This battle against extreme narratives is fundamentally one of influence between the authorities and other sources, between an individual and those around them. In the words of Winston Churchill, “The empires of the future are empires of the mind”. To fight this threat, the government should be looking to counter the influence of such claims and use the same developments such as social media that have propagated falsehoods to exert counter-influence. Each person you win over, in turn, exerts his influence on those around him which eventually secures the majority. The majority, in turn, dictate civic norms which push these extremist views to the fringe due to their disapproval keeping this problem under control.
In fact, the very presence of mass outrage against fake news indicates that people recognise that certain information sources are false which begs the question again, if the public is aware and not taken in by this then what is this hearing supposed to achieve?
Mechanisms already in place to take action
Despite my strong opposition to the government position, I am not an enemy in this fight. Like others who may or may not have spoken up, I am also troubled by fake news and want to combat it. Given how fabricating claims on the internet is just the latest addition to the long unsavoury history of extreme narratives; the best course of action is to tackle the narrative. Be it fake or real evidence supporting them, the core issue is how they are interpreted so acting against falsehoods achieves very little, and as I’ve shown is a potentially insoluble problem.
We already have strong slander and libel laws in place, there are mechanisms to take action if these extreme narratives come to our shores and the government has exercised this in the past. The effective solution to this is to build critical thinking and influence, the later the government has already proven proficient at in other areas. Therefore, the idea of establishing new legal ordinance to combat online falsehood is both an unnecessary and untenable pre-emptive action. The status quo is sufficient, any potential reinforcement should not be done through laws.
About a year ago, Prof Tommy Koh said we needed more naysayers, not more radicals or people just rocking the boat for the sake of it but more people willing to provide constructive criticism. The gauntlet was thrown down to us and this is one of many answers.