A debate unfolded on Facebook these past few days which was ignited when former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and former member of the Media Literacy Council wrote a blog post about the highly criticised Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), addressing the criticism and defending the need for the bill.
In sharing the post on his Facebook page, Mr Cheng had quoted a section from the blog in which he had singled out Media Professor Cherian George for being confused over why new laws are need and how laws are drafted. He said he found it ‘baffling’ that Prof George would concede that laws need to be updated to keep up with changing modalities while still insisting that existing laws are adequate.
Responding to the call out, Prof George first apologised in the comments section for ‘baffling’ Mr Cheng. He then proceeded to say, “I would have been happy to elaborate but reading your barely recognisable interpretation of my views, I gather that you are less motivated by a desire to understand and more by a need to divide the world into comforting for/against, us/them binaries.”
What followed was a long exchange between the two men over several days, going back and forth over what they each meant while pointing out how the other never addressed the points made in counter arguments. It was mostly civilised and stayed that way before breaking down a little when they each took swipes at the other’s perceived intentions and abilities.
If you’d like to read this war of words in its entirety, Prof George extracted the comments into an online document for easy reading which you can find at the end of this post.
Here’s the gist of it:
Mr Cheng chose to include a quote of something Mr George said at the Select Committee hearing on online falsehoods back in 2018 but he only quoted part of the sentence. The sentence Mr Cheng quoted, “I think we are on safer ground if we update our laws to keep up with changing modalities”. Combined with Mr George’s vocal critique on POFMA, Mr Cheng is implying that Mr George is both for updating existing laws to address modern technology while being against POFMA for doing just that.
However, Mr George called Mr Cheng out for not quoting the full sentence of including the context in which it was stated. The full quote is, “I think we are on safer ground if we update our laws to keep up with changing modalities; it is a riskier gambit if we are creating new classes of illegal speech.”
What develops from there is an argument over two different things. Mr Cherian is calling out Mr Cheng for misquoting him and misrepresenting his opinions while Mr Cheng continues to affirm that Mr George’s opinions are wrong. They go back and forth over these points, especially their interpretation of the fake news law and whether it is necessary, neither conceding.
At one point early on in the debate, Mr Cheng says “At the heart of the debate is a difference in what we value”.
So here’s the thing, Mr George is calling out Mr Cheng for misrepresenting him and not providing the full context of what he had said during the Select Committee hearings last year. On the other hand, Mr Cheng is standing on the fact that he disagrees with Mr Cherian’s critics and assessment of the fake news law and therefore doesn’t see the need to correct his statement made about Mr Cherian.
The 16-page document prepared by Mr George of the exchange shows the men debating on what is essentially two different issues.
Multiple times, Mr George insisted that Mr Cheng provide quotes and statements or any kind of evidence to prove his claim that Mr Cherian was being ‘inconsistent’ with his views and that he was ‘wrong’ in his interpretation of the law. Mr Cheng did not. Mr George also accused Mr Cheng of trying to undermine his credibility by misleading his readers.
Mr George said, “You have misled your readers and continue to do so my misrepresenting my view…Since you are not an unintelligent person, this can only be a deliberate attempt to mislead.”
On the other side, Mr Cheng at one point called Mr Cherian’s opinion that the new law created a new type of illegal speech as ‘patently untrue’. He also insisted that he stood by his words that Mr George is ‘wrong’ in his opinion and called for him to retract his statement that he was misleading readers. He then accused Mr George of having a ‘pugnacious attitude’ throughout the exchange and ‘deliberately obfuscating’ the issue.
After more verbal sparring, the two men agreed that they cannot infer the motivations driving each other, malevolent or otherwise. However, neither conceded to the other’s points on the original issues that were raised.Fullscreen Mode