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Five takeaways from the fake news committee recommendations

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods has put up 22 recommendations. Here are five quick takeaways.

One: There isn’t even a definition

First, the glaring omission is that there isn’t even a definition of what constitutes deliberate online falsehoods. The committee only goes so far as to say that such falsehoods “harm democracy and the genuine contestation of ideas in the marketplace.”

But what is exactly deemed deliberate online falsehoods? How do you tell deliberate from unintentional, due to carelessness or ignorance? What if something is half true/half false, or cannot be proven to be demonstrably false? Many questions abound.

It is odd that a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is unable to even come up with a definition of what constitutes the very thing they are trying to combat.

Two: The new password is national security and sovereignty

The committee says that “strong” governmental response is needed to safeguard national security and sovereignty.

And the government’s response is to echo the exact same thing: “Online falsehoods can harm national security and undermine a nation’s sovereignty.”

How convenient! Haven’t we heard this before?

Anyone who dares object to something that is being done ostensibly to protect national security and sovereignty would risk coming across as either a fool or a traitor.

Three: Cripple revenue sources and you win half the battle

The committee proposes new laws to prevent companies from advertising on platforms deemed to be spreading online falsehoods.

Without revenue streams, platforms would struggle and fail. This is a calibrated approach to clamping down on social media platforms, a sledgehammer approach to an issue that is far more complex.

Four: One committee against one man

The committee singled out historian Thum Ping Tjin rather extensively, saying he was not a “credible representor” and that his views carried “no weight” and he “clearly lied” about his credentials.

An inordinate amount of time was spent grilling Thum during the hearings, and an inordinate amount of space is given to Thum for the committee’s report and findings.

After going through 170 written representations and hearing evidence from 65 individuals and organisations, the focus is still on one man. If Thum is persona non grata (unacceptable and unwelcome), why waste so much time and space on him?

Five: Fact-checking coalition (but with or without the government?)

The committee’s recommendation of a fact-checking coalition to debunk falsehoods is a good one.

Last year, FactCheck Initiative Japan (FIJ) was launched, comprising media and technology organisations pooling resources and tapping expertise to fact-check falsehoods quickly and effectively.

The Japanese government plays no part in FIJ, and if we have such a fact-checking coalition for Singapore, the government should also not have a role.

Getting the government to take the lead in fact-checking issues relating to governance and politics could be just the thing to turn the coalition into a sham and a propaganda machine.