“Singapore needs a code of online conduct for all political parties and government bodies,” said Cherian George, a Professor in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.
On his website, the professor wrote an essay titled “Time for a Code of Conduct” in which he made the case for the nation to implement and adopt a higher standard of conduct from political parties and government in order to commit them to using internet tools more ethically and transparently.
Prof George who formerly lectured at Nanyang Technological University said, “Public opinion manipulation by politicians, their functionaries, and their hardcore supporters is threatening Singaporeans’ ability to conduct reasoned debates about national issues, and exposing individual citizens to the harms of hate speech.”
He argued that such toxicity cannot be eliminated entirely via regulation, though said that self-regulation by major political parties and the government can go a long way towards cleaning up the political discourse here.
The professor listed three key commitments that a code of conduct should address:
- No to all inauthentic behaviours, such as using fake social media accounts and paid human trolls to mislead people about the state of public opinion.
- Yes to full transparency in public communication, with no hidden or opaque sponsorship of content, or use of anonymous sites.
- No to supporters who propagate lies and incite hatred in your name: disown or correct those who abuse others, including your political opponents.
Prof George asserted, “Instituting such a code of conduct is a major piece of unfinished business arising from the deliberations of the 2018 Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.”
He explained in the essay that a code of conduct for political parties isn’t a new idea, highlighting the United Kingdom’s Labour Party which requires its member to abide by a code of conduct which also includes social media policies.
The professor noted that such codes are never “watertight” as there will always be those to stray. However, he asserted that what matters is how the group responds when someone violates the norm.
“How a leader responds to bad behaviour by its followers will define the character of the group; and reveal the measure of the man,” said Prof George.
Select Committee on Deliberate Falsehoods didn’t hold up a mirror to the government
Talking about the Select Committee in 2018, Prof George noted that it had endorsed in its report several recommendations from experts to have people disclosure where content online was paid for and by whom. The committee said that transparency should be required for all forms of issue-based messaging and not just campaign advertising.
Prof George quoted the committee which said, “The goal of such transparency is to educate users on the behaviour and intent of other content providers they encounter online, and reduce the opportunity for malicious actors to hide behind Internet anonymity to carry out abusive activities.”
However, Prof George highlighted a major flaw in the Select Committee’s report. He said, “It was like a large illuminated mirror giving us a better look at our online environment — but tilted at an angle to keep the government out of view.”
“This seed of selective vision ultimately sprouted into the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), through which only government ministers get to trigger a correction or takedown order — as if it is inconceivable that any current or future office holder would ever be guilty of a false or misleading statement of fact,” he pressed.
Governments have become the largest online players
Prof George also touched on the government’s online reach, arguing that while many Singaporeans might not take to the idea of holding the government accountable for its own speech, it is essential nonetheless.
The professor said, “It is true that many extreme forms of disinformation are likely to come from overseas. But we should not confuse extremity with impact.”
He then noted a report by the Oxford Internet Institute last year which confirmed that governments are emerging as major players in social media manipulation. Though Singapore was not included in the report, Prof George asserted that as a global pioneer in e-government, Singapore is “probably not falling behind in computational propaganda.”
“High quality social media manipulation is expensive, which is why states do it better than fringe groups — and why many governments are no longer cowed by the internet and believe this is a war they can win.”
Governments and parties outsource some online operations to for-profit public relations consultancies who subsequently deploy both armies to “engage in other dark arts” at arms length of their clients, said Prof George.
Apart from that, in most countries, the ones that push the government’s message online the most are unpaid volunteers who “enlist in the cause out of conviction”.
Leaders have a responsibility to set the tone
Looking at Singapore, Prof George noted a trend in recent years where Singaporeans engaged in public debate have raised concerns over the increase of “intolerant nationalist-populist rhetoric by the PAP [People’s Action Party].”
“Supporters defame critics, claiming they are foreign-funded fiends who are threatening the country,” he noted.
Giving a specific example, Prof George spoke about a “vile attack” from a pro-government Facebook account named Global Times Singapore (GTS) on him and his wife following a South China Morning Post (SCMP) opinion piece by Singaporean Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh.
“GTS charged that Sudhir, along with other Singaporeans who have written for the paper — Ken Kwek, Tan Tarn How, PN Balji, Inderjit Singh and Donald Low — were contributing to a campaign by China to put pressure on Singapore,” said Prof George.
“GTS defamed my wife, a senior SCMP editor, by suggesting that she is not acting professionally but using her position to help China put pressure on our country. It also defamed me, suggesting that I was instrumental in helping China by channeling these Singaporeans — two of whom I have met only once, maybe three to ten years ago — into my wife’s hands,” he continued, adding that the allegation was “outlandish”.
Prof George asserted that the only reason so many Singaporeans resorted to publishing their opinions on SCMP was that Singapore’s “throttled newspapers” are “inhospitable” to views which are deemed critical of the government.
The professor then went on to argue that the reason such incidents should not be ignored is that they have the potential to cause harm to individual citizens who are targeted. Second, he argued that there is a cost to the public interest.
He quoted the Select Committee report which said: “Online falsehoods can derail democratic contestation, and harm freedom of expression.”
Third, Prof George argued that there is also a cost to the ruling party, the PAP. He explained that such pro-PAP sites taint the party’s reputation for rational and sober governance.
Prof George argued that while it is premature to blame the PAP for what GTS has done since the site isn’t an official channel of the government, it is “not unreasonable” to expect leaders to clarify their stance.
“Regardless of what others are doing, leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for their followers, and to correct those who claim to be their supporters when they are wrong,” said the professor.
“Singapore’s ruling party has a greater moral responsibility than the rest, because of its supersized influence.”