3 problems with where the Select Committee on fake news is going with public consultation

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By Howard Lee

The latest announcement by the Select Committee on fake news to encourage more submissions to assist with its study on “deliberate online falsehoods” should have encouraged many. More views are better than fewer, as it gives more diversity of opinions. Right?

Committee chairman Charles Chong has noted that the scheduled public hearing later this year – over two weeks of around eight hours per day – would need more views than the 22 submissions the Committee received so far. Chong then went on to call on tech giants Facebook and Google to submit their views, as the “news organisations and online platforms” would likely have some pointers for the government.

“It’ll be interesting to find out how they vet and fact-check this information and the rigour of the measures that they take to verify the accuracy of such information,” Chong was quoted by Channel NewsAsia as saying.

Chong’s Committee member and party colleague, Rahayu Mahzam, was also quoted as having tried to encourage her friends to submit proposals. “It doesn’t have to be a well-researched paper. An experiential account can be useful for us to identify a range of views too,” she was quoted by The Straits Times as saying.

This latest announcement is clearly full of problems, and there are three reasons for it.

Quantity over quality?

Perhaps 22 submissions are really insufficient for a two-weak hearing, but to ask as Mahzam did for any kind of contribution defeats the purpose of a proper consultation. For sure, a diversity of views is beneficial to any public consultation process, but the Committee needs to remember that it will, in all likelihood, use these submissions to consider the implementation of laws that could have a serious impact on people’s lives.

With Mahzam putting a well-researched paper on equal footing as an “experiential account”, the Committee appears to be suggesting that it is willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. Is this the best way to contemplate legislation?

Indeed, this quality-quantity dilemma raises a problem for the Committee to consider. If it receives 100 anecdotal “experiential accounts” from people who believed they have been misled by misinformation, compared to 10 well-researched papers on how public education is preferable to legislation, drawing in examples from diverse sources, which would the Committee weigh in more heavily on?

For instance, the speech made in Parliament by Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Kok Heng Leun provided many good pointers for taking the issue forward. Most notably, Mr Kok was one of those who spoke about the Select Committee but was not included in it. Will the Committee be including his views as a “submission”, if it is truly seeking diversity of opinions?

Public consultation cannot be forced. This is further exacerbated by the fact that submitters might be required to present at the hearing, which might be a put-off for many reasons. Of the 22 submitters who did pitch in, it would be prudent for the Committee to appreciate the effort and, for lack of a better term, make do with what they have. Even if there is a lack of diversity, the Committee should accept that they represent the views of those who have put in the effort to think the matter through.

Instead, it would better serve government transparency and inspire public confidence if the Committee were to be open about the submissions it does receive, seeking permission from submitters to publish their entries anonymously, to ensure that its decisions are open to scrutiny and above reproach. In this case, having fewer submissions is a boon, not a bane.

Who’s the actual stakeholder?

Chong has also taken the rather odd step of inviting the likes of Facebook and Google to pitch in to the consultation process. This is odd since the Committee could have just as easily invited them directly – both companies have representative offices in Singapore, so how hard can it be to knock on their doors?

Moreover, the steps taken by both companies in the face of misinformation have already been widely publicised. Facebook has swung from having users determine the trustworthiness of the content they read, to providing links to “related articles” to diversify content. Google has considered technical solutions ranging from fact checking tools to refining its search algorithms.

None of these efforts have been fool proof – if by that we mean a complete eradication of misinformation – but a clear signal arising from them would be that countering misinformation depends on user savvy and public education. Why not ask Google and Facebook specifically about the success of these initiatives?

Chong’s classification of Facebook and Google as “news organisations and online platforms” is also problematic, not least because both Facebook and Google have persistently denied that they are news entities, problematic as their defence are, but also because such international entities would not likely be affected by such new legislation, compared to the many local news websites and individual bloggers who do have a vested interest. Unless the government can guarantee that any new legislation will not affect these local players, shouldn’t the Committee be encouraging all these local entities to submit their views instead?

The truth is… already out there?

And finally, the Committee’s call for more submission, particularly from foreign experts, is worrying. Mind, we should encourage an external eye to give a fresh perspective to the problem, or to even say if there is even a problem to begin with. But given the various studies and views that have been published and are easily available with an online search, why is there still a need for such a call?

Take for instance the debate that is currently going on in the UK warning about the politicised meaning of “fake news”, or the criticism in both France and Germany against fake news legislation as a tool of political manipulation. There is even resentment in the Philippines about how political showmanship and lies are misleading journalists. Shouldn’t the Committee already be seeking out such published material, if diversity and international perspectives is what it seeks?

In essence, the success of the public consultation is less about exactly how many or diverse the submissions are. Instead, what the Committee should be aiming for is to engage those who would likely be impacted by the end result of its deliberations; make full use of what it receives; do some digging and analysis on its own; and be ready to publicly defend any position that it makes out of the process.

The last thing we want is for a group of human letterboxes to decide on legislation based on a poorly conceived consultation process. A Select Committee that does that has already failed us and should cede its responsibilities to a more informed and engaged body.

The author has already made his submission to the Select Committee and will also be forwarding this article to them for consideration. You know, just to make it 23.

27 COMMENTS

  1. (A repost from my blog of Jan.)

    January 19, 2018
    DOING MY FAIR SHARE HERE TO FIGHT THE ‘FAKE NEWS’ PHENOMENON IN SINGAPORE
    Recently, TISG (The Independent Singapore) published a laundry list of what it reported to be Singaporean filmmaker Martin See’s 10 pet peeves of what he considers to be certain ‘fake news’. FWIW, here’s my take on them in CliffNotes version couched in parenthesis:

    1. Singapore was a fishing village before 1965.
    [Patently not so! Before Sir Raffles set shop here in 1819, local pop. was less than a thousand; by the turn of the century, it was over 228K, a bona fide hyperactive entrepôt/metropolis already by 1901; surely not some fishing-village jerkwater kampong by any stretch of the imagination.]

    2. Singapore is a meritocracy.
    [If by it, meant a society managed and ruled by skilled and talented people selected on the basis of their abilities, Little Red Dot does qualify as such to a point. But are they the best? … far from it; case in point: SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek’s rumored salary of S$2.25 to S$2.5 million in the last 3 years simply does not comport with the strict definition of meritocracy in view of the recent rash of technical snafus plaguing the MRT public transport network.]

    3. Singapore has parliamentary democracy.
    [To be precise, it’s undeniably a one-dominant party parliamentary democracy; but a rose by any other descriptive name is still a rose.]

    4. Elections in Singapore are free and fair.
    [Under a one-man-one-vote system, it’s deemed free and fair, ceteris paribus — but all things in life are never being equal. However, for example, if a pol got clobbered not once but 5 times on the hustings, he has himself to blame.]

    5. The mainstream press is fair, objective and responsible.
    [Sure, it is as fair and objective as its government-appointed overseer would allow it.]

    6. High salaries attract competent and honest politicians.
    [There is a modicum of truth to that… even the Beijing Mandarins are now seriously looking at adopting such a scheme in order to ameliorate the incidence of corrupt officials being sent before firing squads.]

    7. Foreign talents create more jobs.
    [If the definition of foreign talents encompasses the MNCs, then for sure they bring more jobs and competition to the local market.]

    8. There is rule of law in Singapore.
    [Of course the rule of law prevails in the city-state; Amos Yee would be the first to concede to that… but it is a rule of law highly peculiar to its own taste as in hanging the Damoclean sword over one’s nephew’s head because of his PRIVATE Fb postings.]

    9. The ISD do not torture detainees.
    [Fair’s fair — of all the less than honorable missteps of the gov., physical torture of political detainees is not amongst its calling cards.]

    10. Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s founding father.
    [For a more punctilious phrasing, it should read LKY is Singapore’s PARAMOUNT founding father.]

    *************************************************************************

    [Featured below, is a Jan. 16 feedback post of mine on PM Lee’s Fb wall (amongst other panjandrums) re the special gov. committee convened to counter the burgeoning fake news phenomenon.]

    This ‘fake news’ ‘covfefe’ is much ado about nothing…

    Sure, this Singapore Select Committee could easily engender a snaggle of rules and regulations in its mock-heroic aspiration to combat so-called fake-news phenomena. But pardon me, aren’t there already sufficient laws on the books to penalize the seriously errant purveyors of fake news such as the 2015 media license suspension and eventual shutdown of TRS (The Real Singapore) outlet? … with jail sentences meted out in 2016 to its 2 editors to boot.

    Fake news has been around since the dawn of time. Indeed, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Would the Creation Museum of Ken Ham in Kentucky presenting Adam and Eve romping in the garden with dinosaurs be deemed ‘fake news/entertainment’?

    In the Internet age of near-effortless click-and-go publication/dissemination, the snowballing phenomena of fake news are willy-nilly writ large ever more; trying to regulate such human creativity would be at best futile and at worst counterproductive. Where there are the inevitable gray areas in such activities, let the Internet self-police — the interplay between the ‘fake’ and the ‘observant’ forces/entities on the Net should take care of it by and large.

    As two examples of such interplays: 1. if BuzzFeed News reportage of then presidential candidate Trump’s alleged cavorting with harlots in Russia was all fake, Trump could have easily sued for defamation and put it out of biz but he didn’t. 2. Singapore independent reporter Kirsten Han‘s oft-presented ‘fake’ meme of Amos Yee in severely contorted facial anguish outside the courthouse in 2015, has been called out more than once by none other than yours sincerely.

  2. It takes a matured mind to see thru who are the fake news generators. I never trust what is reported by the state controlled media. In fact, whatever they have reported , the truth will be the opposite. And I am often right guessing on it. Worth taking the risk. Lol

  3. And if they were to put into laws , foreigners who knew about it will avoid settling down in sinkyland. It’s alike North Korea ruling. And the smart Singaporeans are thinking of migrating already. The nation is regressing

  4. We are in 2018 , have two top university in Asia, few more and polytechnics and majority of the population are ” educated ” ( though stupid ) , still this country must be ran like a dog on leash? Which society of this nature can churn out ideas? 52 years of Independence and we are still complaining not enough talent. How does countries like Denmark and Israel survives? This control freak culture will generate more and more kiasu mentality idiots. Singapore won’t be a smart city with such mind set.

  5. The additional problems
    1) it exists in the 1st place
    2) whatever legislation will be to ensure that no one challenges their exceptionalism
    3) it’ll ensure that the political operatives with bylines will be able to spread their counterfeit stuff under govt protection. Cause we all know how super objective the local media is.

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