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Criminal sanctions, rigorous fact-checking, and public education among recommended solutions to spread of online falsehoods

Increased accessibility to technological social platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter has enabled the uncontrolled dissemination of deliberate online falsehoods, or colloquially known as "fake news," amongst the public.

To combat the spread of such disinformation, the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods has put forward several recommendations in a report that was released on Thursday (20 Sep).

Among said recommendations are:

1. Imposing criminal sanctions on users who spread false information online

It was added that such criminal sanctions should apply, regardless of whether the intent is malicious or "grossly negligent," particularly in cases where the spread of disinformation results in "demonstrable public harm".

Examples of such public harm include "interference with elections, de-stabilisation of the financial system, causing hatred or inciting seditious sentiments, and severe financial or reputational harm to Singapore or any of Singapore’s key institutions."

The Committee added that "the Government should ensure these deterrent measures are adequate in scope to cover the range of methods and actors, including the deliberate use of inauthentic accounts or bots, the provision of tools and services to publish falsehoods, and the masterminds behind online falsehoods, who may not always be the ones creating or spreading them".

2. Having countermeasures in place to deal with national security threats and State-sponsored disinformation campaigns/operations

According to the Committee report, "Singapore has “been the subject of foreign, state-sponsored disinformation operations" such as the recent hacking of SingHealth’s databases and the spread of propaganda by certain States. This includes monitoring and preventing digital advertising tools as well as other technological avenues from being misused by suspicious and potentially dangerous agents, such as "foreign State actors" or "local non-State actors" to spread geopolitical unrest.

3. Nurturing an informed public by increasing the public's media and technological literacy through educational campaigns

In a submission by NTU accountancy student Mr Chua Jun Hao, it was highlighted that 85% of Singaporeans obtain their news online, with the majority getting their news from social media.

The high percentage emphasises the Committee's need to recommend public education "of media and digital literacy, and also critical thinking skills" to ensure that the public will be more discerning in processing and sharing information, as well as to teach them "to be responsible social media users."

Examples of such campaigns in the past by government institutions include NLB's Source, Understand, Research, and Evaluate (S.U.R.E.) in 2013, MLC's Better Internet Campaign, and the Ministry of Education's Cyber Wellness programme.

Technological companies' role in inculcating media literacy amongst the public

Social media giants, in their written representations, explained that they have attempted to tackle the problem of deliberate online falsehoods through the platforms themselves.

Facebook, for example, continuously works on banning "inauthentic accounts, and requiring users to use their authentic names."

Additionally, it has been using algorithms to “down rank” and reduce content in users' News Feed that it deems to be inaccurate, "clickbait," or hoaxes in general.

It is also working on making its advertising service more transparent, by "enabling the public to view all the advertisements that a Facebook Page is running."

WhatsApp is currently testing a “forwarded message” tag warning users when a message has been forward multiple times, indicating that it is spam. In some countries such as India, it has began limiting "the forwarding of messages, photos and videos to 20 chats at a time, whether among individuals or groups."

In India – where false information circulating on WhatsApp has led to a spate of violent incidents – a lower limit of 5 chats was set, and the quick forward button next to media messages for its users has been removed, according to WhatsApp's representative.

Google is "taking steps to prevent its Google Search algorithm from being exploited" to amplify “poor quality or misleading” information, by “working to make improvements” to surface more high quality and credible results in response to their users’ queries. 

It also plans to introduce a “fact-check label” in Google News and Google Search, which "flags when a claim has been fact-checked by a publisher or factchecker, and links to the fact check," and "a labelled article will also be shown next to a related article whenever possible".

Google will also ban "misleading, inappropriate or harmful ads on Google Ads," and "prohibit website owners who misrepresent who they are and deceive users with their content from running advertisements" on Google AdSense and DoubleClick.

It will also improve YouTube algorithms to "prioritise authoritative sources over freshness and relevance" in "breaking news" situations.

Twitter is currently working on developing "technology to prohibit malicious automation, such as botnets, as well as accounts that display spam behaviour, or coordinated and abusive behaviour," as well as "improving how it detects when accounts may have been hacked or compromised."

Their efforts, according to the submissions, are not limited to online measures, but also involve real-life engagement with the public in Singapore.

In Sep last year, for example, Facebook partnered with the Media Literacy Council (MLC) to distribute 130,000 posters (in English, Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu and Tamil) to local neighbourhoods around Singapore, to inform them on ways to "spot false news."

The social media platform also made a public announcement on “How to Spot False News” on its Singapore page in the same month, which reached "over tens of thousands" of people in Singapore.

Google has worked in partnership with MLC "to help citizens, regardless of age, develop critical thinking, and to promote an astute and responsible participatory culture online," as seen in its active support of the MLC’s Better Internet x Youths Call for Proposals (CFP) in which it "provided co-funding support and advice to community projects and initiatives focused on tackling misinformation".

For the Better Internet Campaign 2018, Twitter collaborated with the MLC for the "language translation of the Digital Intelligence (DQ) Parent Handbook into the vernacular languages, which benefitted Singaporean parents of different races," and "conducted workshops for parents" in conjunction with the NLB and MENDAKI.

4. Promoting rigorous fact-checking and high journalistic standards in both mainstream and alternative media

This should take form, according to the Committee, in efforts to enhance journalists' skills in digital fact-checking through "advanced training" such as workshops by universities and other institutions, as well as collaborative efforts among news outlets to study how online falsehoods and disinformation campaigns work, and to "prevent duplication of efforts" that contain "manipulation tactics" amongst various newsrooms.

Quoting the report, the Committee urged "both the mainstream media and the alternative news platforms" to "hold themselves to the same professional standards of journalism, ensuring there is fairness, accuracy and integrity in reporting."

5. Strengthening social cohesion amongst communities

Community organisations and initiatives are encouraged by the Committee to clarify and disseminate information falsehoods that will potentially affect social cohesion through the following means:

a. Employing people-to-people interaction and communication;

b. Creating “safe spaces” for the exchange of views and perspectives on sensitive issues;

c. Serving as voices of influence in society, to cultivate a strong core of people who are less susceptible to deliberate online falsehoods;

d. Mediating honest discussions among differing groups; and

e. Reach into and across “echo chambers”.

6. Restoring or maintaining trust in public institutions

The Committee urged public government bodies, wherever possible, to "provide information to the public in response to online falsehoods in a timely manner," and to anticipate any potential room for the spread of falsehoods beforehand.

The Committee also recommended that public bodies should "ensure that they communicate with the public in clear and comprehensible terms" through the following steps:

i. explain the rationale for public policy decisions;

ii. be candid about failures and problems faced;

iii. undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;

iv. involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;

v. demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and

vi. foster civil society and an active citizenry.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) in its response to the Committee's recommendations highlighted its role in initiating "Our Singapore Conversation" in 2012 to "engage Singaporeans on their hope and aspirations for Singapore," in which "over 47,000 people" had taken part.

MCCY added that the campaign was succeeded by SGfuture as part of the SG50 celebrations, "where Singaporeans shared their ideas for a better Singapore, and came together to turn their ideas into action."

The Ministry noted that the Committee on the Future Economy launched in 2016 "saw over 9,000 businesses, members of the workforce and Singaporeans participate in shaping our economic future ahead," and that "more recently, the Government has embarked on a discussion series to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life in charting the way ahead for Singapore."

MCCY also mentioned its other initiatives such as a joint one with the People's Association called "Ask Kopi Kakis" and Community Kopi Talks, as well as its partnership with the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony to foster inter-religious dialogue amongst Singaporeans.

Public involvement in governmental policy-making was highlighted by the MCCY in its response, citing the “Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home” or REACH initiative, which was formed in 2006.

Through REACH, said MCCY, "over 150 Listening Points and dialogues were conducted to engage Singaporeans on a range of issues including transport, cost of living, jobs and economy, terrorism, cyber security, fake news, elected presidency and the President’s Address" from Jan last year to May this year.

Additionally, the set up of a trusted fact-checking council was also recommended by the Committee, in which the Government may participate in alongside "different media organisations and partners from other industries".