Dr Cherian George, professor of media studies at the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University and a former journalist of The Straits Times in Singapore, has expressed concerns over the potential of misuse of legislation targeting the spread of fake news in the hands of the government.
Speaking at a panel discussion on fighting fake news at the East West International Media Conference in Singapore on 25 June, he said that “Asian governments,” including that of Singapore, do not have a very good record of writing laws that are “narrow, proportionate, or fair” regarding fake news.
He proposed that penalties against the spread of deliberate misinformation should be proportionate to the harm that might be caused as a result.
“[The government should not] jail bloggers for ten years and so on […] which happens in some parts of Asia,” he illustrated.
He also believes that such laws should not only apply to political dissidents, and that the government must also be subjected to such legislation.
Referencing to the claim that Iraq had weapon of mass destruction which then led to the occupation of Iraq and conflict that last till today, Dr George “When it comes to information pollution […] governments are potential and actual vectors of the problem,” he said, and that overly relying on governments as a source of information paves the way for them to become “cop and judge” in all matters concerning the dissemination of possible malicious disinformation.
While the law should never be disregarded as one of the possible responses to the spread of malicious disinformation, Dr George said that “it is incumbent on the press, our citizens, and MPs to scrutinise any proposed legislation with extreme care” to avoid such laws being weaponised against dissidents of the state.[spacer height=”20px”]
Disappointment over MSM’s support towards the proposed fake news legislation
In 2013, the National Library Board, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, launched the SURE (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate) campaign to increase information literacy amongst citizens, which included training workshops for teachers and parents.
Touching on the role of mainstream media in Singapore, Dr George expressed disappointment over their response towards “online falsehoods”.
He says that the mainstream media should not support the proposed fake news legislation, but instead should advocate for greater press freedom overall, so that deliberate misinformation can be tackled more effectively.
Facebook’s head of public policy for Malaysia and Singapore, Alvin Tan echoed Dr George’s statement, stating that legislation is an “imperfect tool” in dealing with fake news, especially on social media platforms such as Facebook itself, where inaccurate information is spread within seconds every day.
Malaysia’s lawmakers set a recent precedent in the Southeast Asian region regarding clamping down on malicious disinformation by passing the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 on Apr 2, which carries stiff punishments of up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (S$170,000). The legislation came into effect on Apr 11, despite protests from opposition lawmakers and civil society at large.
However, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo announced on May 22 that a proposal is being made to repeal the Act in the next Parliamentary sitting under the new Pakatan Harapan government, according to The Star Online.
Netizens’ responses towards the issue have indicated that the core of the problem lies not within the spread of malicious disinformation in itself, but rather, a symptom of a tightened grip on press liberties, and the freedom of speech of civil society in general by the government.
User Chua Lee Kheng believes that the government might be out of touch with the needs of citizens at large:
“Instead of seeing it as a fake news problem, it would be good to investigate why a particular individual acted the way he or she against an organization in a negative way [and] why we have not achieve[d] equality in our society. Leaders should care about whatever is going wrong in society and the world at large. I notice [that] there is a trend towards [feigning] empathy with marginalised groups or individual and normal people start doing what these marginalised group[s] do, like putting on [appropriative] tattoo[es] using the mass media [and then] calling it “body art”.”
User Koh Chua Lian succinctly states:
“The real issue is not fake news but a corrupted Govt. ‘Fake news’ is just used as a cover up for the Govt and to clamp down opposition [voices].
Misuse of “fake news” could lead to complete erosion trust in all news source
In a separate event, Dr George also said that the misuse of “fake news” could lead to a complete erosion trust in all news sources amongst the public, even supposedly reliable and transparent news outlets, as it often overlaps with certain forms of propaganda.
The term “fake news” saw its advent during Trump’s political rise in the recent years.
Speaking at a two-day Asia Journalism Forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies back in August 2017, he said that “behind calls to get rid of immigrants or suppress a religious sect, you will find the deliberate propagation of lies”. He cited how a poll by the Centre for Security Policy in 2015, one of several US think-tanks geared towards generating disinformation on Muslims, was used by President Donald Trump in his campaign to call for a Muslim ban. The poll claimed to have found that 1 in 4 Muslims believes in “violent jihad” against Americans. The poll was eventually debunked.
However, Dr George pointed out that the term “fake news” is not a new one. He posited that the tactics used in distributing deliberate misinformation contributed to the effectiveness of President George Bush’s propaganda towards politicians and many citizens of the United States at the time, of which it alleged that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction.
Dr George suggested that President Bush would not have been able to justify US military invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the tactics used to spread fake news not been used in Bush’s campaign.
“When people were presented with established facts, they simply refused to believe them, preferring to believe what more reasonable minds knew to be wildly untrue,” he said, according to KuenselOnline.
He said that a similar crisis is befalling Asia, which is slowly eroding the integrity of media and journalism in the continent.
“If facts don’t count, if reason doesn’t win, then what’s the point of fighting for press freedom or searching for sustainable business models? Maybe we should just give up and move into public relations.”
Dr George warns that disinformation often exploits people’s inability to process risk.
“Even with life-and-death matters like catastrophic climate change and epidemics, people have a hard time interpreting statistics. The scientific community is especially bothered by this because they often have the facts and figures for people to act on, but people are not absorbing the message.”
Industrialisation and globalisation also potentially serve as threats against transparent reporting in favour of propaganda and biased reporting, he said.
This is because the rapid commercialisation of the industry has contributed to numbers of media and communication professionals in the persuasion business—public relations, marketing communication, advertising—outnumbering professional journalists, he suggested.
“It should be quite obvious that the stronger the professional media sector, the better society’s chances of combating disinformation. Journalists need the time and resources to produce meaningful stories that can counter fake news.”