222. Fact-checking council needed to counter fake news

Local media organisations advocated the setting up of a fact-checking body to counter the trend of fake news online. In their written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Channel NewsAsia and Singapore Press Holdings both agreed that there has to be council or an alliance to identify, assess and react to fake news swiftly.

Both media outlets suggested various minimum criteria when assessing online falsehoods, which includes prediction on fabrication and not fact; content which is available online – website, blogs, social media posts, among others; and deliberate intent.

SPH also raised the concern of free speech where, “Public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest.”

“Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law,” it added.

Mr Warren Fernandez, the Editor of The Straits Times told the Committee that an “important distinction” needed to be made between the “exercising of judgment by editors, and censorship or self-censorship”. “Before we publish anything, we would want to assure ourselves that the content we are putting out is not libelous, unfair or biased … it’s us exercising responsibility,” he said.

“We recognise it’s a duty, and we make judgment calls and we take constant feedback from many sources – newsmakers, readers, organisations … that’s the critical role a responsible media organisation would play.

SPH and CNA also emphasised the critical role mainstream media play to help readers distinguish between credible news and misleading or false reports, through quality journalism. CNA said “Capabilities and newsrooms must continue to be strengthened, to address the problem of DOFs … via high-quality journalism, fact-checking and in-depth reporting.”

Mediacorp’s editor-in-chief Mr Walter Fernandez also added that there is zero tolerance for falsehoods and that multiple checks happen within the newsroom. SPH also added that there is a need for legislation for social media channels, for the content that these platforms choose to publish and promote.

NOTE: Why not set up severe punishment to the authors of fake news? For example, to impose the fine rate of S$10/word. Without such penalty, it is an encouragement to the bad guys who will continue to produce fake news.

221. A strict self-regulatory approach to tackle online falsehoods

Representatives from tech giants Google, Facebook, Twitter as well as the Asia Internet Coalition appeared before the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to make their oral representations in Parliament on 22 March 2018.

Facebook’s Asia-Pacific Vice-President of Public Policy Mr Simon Milner was quizzed by Minister for Home Affairs and Law Mr K Shanmugam on the recent news of alleged misuse of Facebook data by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US presidential election. In the lengthy exchange with Mr Shanmugam, Mr Milner noted that Facebook did have a “moral obligation” to inform users earlier that their data was breached between 2014 and 2015.

When asked if further steps should be taken to verify that data accessed by developers had been deleted after users stop using the app, Mr Milner said: “That’s one of the lessons for us, as to why we’re now going to audit all other apps and not just going to take their affirmation.”

Separately, Mr Alvin Tan (Head of Public Policy for Facebook in Southeast Asia), in a written submission, shared that Facebook plans to work with Government agencies in Singapore ahead of the next General Elections to ensure that it is “rolling out the right tools” which will help users better understand online content. These agencies include the Elections Department and the Ministry of Communications and Information.

During the hearing, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter shared how they have been fighting online falsehoods. Some of the approaches taken include stemming the flow of money to misleading content, improving news feeds by down-ranking false news and leveraging technology to spot spam. The Asia Internet Coalition, on its part, said a “stringent self-regulatory approach”, executed in coordination and cooperation with the authorities, will have a better outcome when tackling fake news.