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Former NMP Calvin Cheng feels it’s “unbelievable” for SDP’s Dr Paul Tambyah to say people don’t have to be worried about fake news, but could he be wrong?

Recently, TOC sat down and interviewed Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah, chairperson of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to get his opinion on the proposed “Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation” (POMFA) bill, its impact on freedom of speech, whistle-blowing and the need for the bill in the first place.

In one of his points, Dr Paul said that the proposed fake news bill is not necessary needed presently as there are plenty of laws such as the Sedition Act, Internal Security Act, and so on. He went on further to explain his reason, stating that the bulk of the population would be able to differentiate between facts and fake news, by giving the example of treating diseases with suitable medication or through drinking fruit juices.

“There are plenty of laws in which we can lock up this person without saying that just because you put a post that drinking fruit juice is going to cure your diabetes, therefore, we have to lock you up under the fake news bill,” he explained.

Following his interview, former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng took to his Facebook page on Wednesday (10 April) to criticise this particular point that Dr Paul made.

In his post, he said that it’s “unbelievable” for the chief of SDP to inform people that they should not be worried about fake news as people won’t believe it.

Based on this, he then questioned Dr Paul, “Can he as a medical practitioner tell us how fake news about vaccinations has started an anti-vaccine movement in western countries, which has led to previously eradicated diseases like measles re-emerging?”

Upon reading Mr Cheng’s post, Assistant Professor Kenny Ching from University College London wrote in the comments section and said that what the NMP said is “misleading” and not exactly what Dr Paul said.

He clarified and said that Dr Paul mentioned that the general population will reject the patently fake news, citing medical treatments as an example.

He added, “Then he (Dr Paul) went on to agree that the fringe population might believe marginal or unfounded statements. But that does not justify imprisoning someone for saying something medically untrue, unless he or she is willfully denying people treatment. That is what he said.”

As for the part Mr Cheng asked how fake news on vaccinations have started an anti-vaccine movement, Mr Ching explained that anti-vaccinations movement basically tells the danger of the lack of checks and balances in deciding what is true and fake.

The movement “started because Lancet – a high impact and supposedly peer reviewed medical journal – allowed that fraudulent article by Andrew Wakefield to be published. And because much faith was placed on medical journals being the ‘final arbiters’ of truth, it led to many people believing vaccinations are linked to autism,” he said.

As such, the Assistant Professor tells that having a single authority to determine what is true is dangerous, as seen in the Andrew Wakefield case. This is because other scientists were not given the access to verify the data as they are not published openly.

Thankfully, Mr Ching said that the anti-vaccinations movement have actually led to the “scientific field embracing a more open structure, where more (NOT LESS) people have a say in determining what is true or not”.

Indirectly, Mr Ching was subtly highlighting that if power is given to more people (the public), then they will have a better say in determining what is true and fake news.