Have we lost our fights against fake news before we even begin?

by Joseph Nathan

The announcement by PM on the proposed “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” at the CNA’s gala dinner has not been well received by many netizens. Many of them have been going online to slam this bill as just another political engineering by the PAP while some questioned the basis of its recommendation.

It is true that the political divide will always be there. But there is also the critical middle ground who are more level-headed of its netizens. Given that this is likely an election year, this middle ground is going to make a big difference. Being level-headed and cautious, they are only seeking clarity and answers. They are worth engaging and our PM should rethink if the bill is the right course of action to be taken against fake news.

Theoretically, there is a basis for the bill as there is indeed a growing instance of falsehood being propagated and concerns are valid when some of these “news” were sinisterly manipulated by some agenda-seeking entities. In reality, it is also counter-productive to be using a spade to span a fly. The issues at hand are the draconic nature of the bill and more critically, the failure of the Select Committee in conducting a more throughout and comprehensive review of the matter before them – dealing with the root-causes that empowered fake news.

The root-causes of Fake News can be attributed and categorized as – misinformation and disinformation. There will be problems when the general public is misinformed as “sinister” entities can easily exploit such misinformation and turn it into dangerous propaganda. The antidote to such malice should be the collective effort of the government and related entities to issue timely corrections, rebuttals and more importantly, more timely update and answers to defuse the situation and mobilize its citizens. The absence of response gives rise to disinformation, which is equally damaging.

To do so, the government needs credible MSMs. Credible not just to the government but more importantly, to the majority of the general public. If our government has at least one credible news portal to engage with its citizens or the general public, they would have been very effective in defusing many of the alleged fake news that were propagated. Unfortunately, trust in our MSMs has fallen over the years. In some surveys conducted, our institutionalized trust level has gone down to as low as 50%. In reality, if we can be honest about it, it is much lower. Our MSMs have been struggling to win the trust of the majority of our citizens. It is bad for their business and it is already reflected in their bottom-line.

Without the support of trusted MSMs on its side, our government will find it challenging to fight against fake news when it cannot connect with its people or mobilize them. This “loss of trust” is further compounded by the lack of coordination between the various governmental ministries, its agencies and MSMs, whenever the public pressed for a timely update, further clarification or more answers but found none. This gives the perception that they, collectively referring to both the government and the MSMs, are not being upfront about that particular issue. Why aren’t the social scientists and experts within the government advising the political leadership against such discrepancies or the lack of a timely response?

Singapore is not Oceania, the totalitarian or authoritarian state in the fictitious dystopia, as depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. We cannot afford to be one. When things happen, our political leaders ought to ensure that there are proper reporting, timely update and always prepared to provide answers in a more responsible manner. They must never attempt to propagate any falsehood themselves. Once its integrity is crushed, it will lose more than this fight.

They also need to have better public communications and hold their political leaders publicly responsible whenever they falsify or trivialize issues unethically for cheap political mileage. This discipline should be the primary or first line of defence in our collective fight against fake news. In the current context, this line of defence is seriously non-existent and highly questionable. The MPs behind this bill needed the moral authority to be pushing for it but do they?

To help our political leaders in their fight, our MSMs ought to have put in greater effort in winning the trust of the public with a better standard of reporting, content and engagement. Its current lazy-fair reporting its news “as provided” by its sources is very troubling. Reporters ought to be asking key questions, clarifying the salient points and help make the news easily and clearly digestible. They need to stop being an echo-chamber or messenger for the government as that is not journalism. Our government should not be helping them financially as they deserve the falling bottom-line and its consequences if they don’t get their acts together.

At the CNA’s gala dinner, PM lavished praises on CNA, and so do many other distinguished guests. I do agree that CNA has caught up quite impressively in the form with leading live-news portals such as CNN or Bloomberg etc. In substance, it does attempt to differentiate itself critically with very hard-hitting interviews with foreign political and business leaders. Unfortunately, all these are missing when it comes to interviewing our political and business leaders. The producers and presenters seem to have miraculously lost their hard-hitting interviewing skills and these interviews turned out as like “staged” interviews, emptied of what the viewers have hoped to be asking or seeking from our political leaders.

Being nice and cordial is one thing but doing so as an MSM is actually harming the integrity of our political leaders. They are not kids and can stand up for themselves. Doing so, they came off the screen as not being credible. The substance is lost. Our MSMs ought to be as hard hitting as it has with foreign leaders. They are doing a disservice not only to our political leaders but also to the country. When this gap is illuminated further, even the regional countries will shun our MSMs for being politically-selective. Bad business practice should not be tolerated.

When the Select Committee was convened to look into fake news, these issues were not comprehensively addressed. In fact, the committee seems to be in a rush to complete its assignment as I remember many netizens giving many constructive feedbacks but it just never got the attention they deserved. In fact, the committee bought into the assurance that our MSMs can be trusted and relied upon as Fact-Checkers. If the committee wants to believe in such simplicity of things, then the whole fight against fake news is already lost.

IBs are social nuisances, the equivalent of street hooligans. Their acts antagonised many netizens and naturally, the government will be faulted. I am surprised that our SPF is not taking any firm action to discourage such online disturbances but was quick to arrest two persons for the “egg-throwing” incidents. It shows that they are aware of what is online but has been selective in their enforcement. At the end of the day, all these antagonizing will be a heavy political cost to the PM. Is the SPF more concerned about its own Home Minister than the PM? This issue of IBs was never addressed by the Select Committee comprehensively too. Why?

Now that the bill is before the parliament, the committee may have done a major disservice to our PM when he pushed for the bill to be passed. All the back-lashings will now fall squarely upon the PM, and not those committee members. Adding the loss of trust in MSMs and their poor level of reporting, adding the selective action shown by our SPF etc, the PM will end up being a victim of his own decision – his trust in the committee, MSMs and SPF may just cause him to be very unpopular in the coming election. Will there be any trusted MPs left in parliament who would question the bill before it is passed and help the PM avoid such back-lashes and our real fight against fake news?

The fight against fake news is a collective effort. Our political leaders need all of its citizens. It cannot continue with such a divisive approach as it will not only be ineffective but will become self-defeating should this poorly reviewed bill be passed. Without the government taking its responsibility seriously, the first line of defence is already lost. Without credible MSMs, its line of engagement is already weakened. Without the majority of its people, it cannot fight any war, much less against fake news. Institutionizing its fight with a poorly reviewed bill will only give sinister entities more “avenue” to gain an upper hand against us. Why are we planning to fail?

SG already has a lot of issues on its plate. We need good and capable leadership at this critical juncture. To even talk about fighting against fake news and become further divided as a society is not a wise decision. Beside the outstanding issues, we also need to get our socio-economic balance right too. Without making a serious effort in uniting the people, our current political leaders may just be the reasons why we end up losing all our fights. This is a Hard Truth. Good leadership is so critical to the well-being of SG and that of Singaporeans.

Time for Singaporeans to see if our PM will blindly accept the recommendations or will he show wisdom and listen to the many patriotic level-headed netizens, and direct the bill to be reviewed more comprehensively, demand better reporting from our MSMs and put in the effort to reduce the divide that is fragmenting us as a nation. His action will define the way forward, not just in our fight against fake news but also the many other issues at hand. We will know if this is a going to be a collective fight that is worth our effort or is it a fight that is already lost before we even got started.

Our PM needs to get this right because Singaporeans deserve better.

This was first published on Joseph Nathan-Hard Truths of SG’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.

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