By Vernon Chan
Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have concluded hearing testimonies from the public.
It is tempting to dismiss the proceedings as a prelude to new laws against free speech online. But it is more profitable to suss out the complexities, competing agendas, inconsistencies, and blind spots that arise from select committee hearings even as the committee balances its fact-finding function with its practical role in parliamentary decision-making and consensus-building.
In other words, ignoring a select committee’s public hearings is an indicator of political illiteracy.
Just what can we learn from the first week of the fake news public hearings, if we paid attention?
Decoding the proceedings
i. The UK select committee on fake news organises hearings as and when submissions are received. The public hearings in Singapore have been scheduled to hear in its first week group establishment academics and think-tanks.
ii. The UK select committee publishes written submissions way ahead and independently of public hearings. Singapore’s select committee only publishes written submissions on the day of the public hearing, only if the submission results in an invitation for a hearing by the panel.
iii. The UK select committee process results in a full transcript of the hearings on the parliament website. The Singapore committee releases no transcripts of the hearings, only video excerpts and a summary of the hearings of the day.
iv. Two private hearings were conducted by the Singapore select committee on 16 March, ostensibly for reasons of national security and international relations. Yet the next day, Singapore’s main newspapers published reports of these “private hearings”, and the summary for hearings that day included sections identifying the witnesses and condensing their testimony. To the extent that one could well identify the countries highlighted by these experts.
This is in stark contrast to the UK select committee procedure. When private hearings are actually conducted in secret, the details are classified. Australian procedure allows select committees to make any part or all of a private hearing open to Parliament, but only after informing the witness and after a transcript of the hearing is verified by the witness. In both cases, any unauthorised publication of the details of a private hearing is ordinarily understood to be in Contempt of Parliament.
Taken singly, each point is no cause for concern. Taken together, they may indicate a communication problem: “In the past, policymakers found it easier to hear from a select group of sources: the usual (safe) suspects”. Did the select committee schedule its hearings to front-load the first week of testimony and resulting media reports with the usual suspects, whose testimony would be most favourable to the intentions of the authors of the Green Paper? Did parliament coordinate with the mainstream press on the reports of the daily public hearings?
No consensus on the basics of fake news
The expert witnesses hail roughly from three different sectors of the political economy: the domestic policy experts from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), the international relations experts from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), and members from security-related foreign think tanks.
News media reported that NUS researchers declared the potentially broad concept of fake news to be unproblematic and distinguishable from “rumours, parodies, satire, hoaxes, conspiracy theories and poor reporting”. Security experts may have characterised Russian fake news in Ukraine as purely disinformation and falsehoods, but ended up using the words “propaganda” and “narratives”.
Whether fake news is a fake concept is still up in the air, as evidenced by the Straits Times running a piece by Jonathan Eyal which lumps fake news together with propaganda, spin, political campaigning. Eyal and I may have had our differences but we do agree that fake news is no different from existing tools of politics, advertising, and advocacy.
What the committee members could’ve done but missed:
ii. Limit the witnesses so that the case studies presented to the committee and to the public (via state media) are not over-represented by the Russian war against Ukraine
iii. Summon emissaries from the top social networks used by Singaporeans to give testimony on the fake news threat, and line them up for the first week of public hearings because direct first-hand evidence needs to be heard first. You know, just like what credible parliamentary committees on fake news are doing?
A politically illiterate citizen would be forgiven for saying that state actors behave like the proverbial madman who strikes out randomly and without warning. Credible international relations experts are more likely to state that states have interests, and their actions – covert or otherwise, friendly diplomatic lobbying or hostile military incursions – are reflective of deep long-term strategic interests (aka motives) and capabilities (aka means), which means that Singapore’s leaders just need to be have a non-zero political IQ to be on guard against a hostile foreign fake news campaign, because you can see one coming from a mile off (unless you’re blind).
But that’s not the worst written testimony that the fake news committee has received. We’ll talk about that one next. And it’s actually not written by a member of the establishment.
This article first appeared on Illusio. We thank the author for his contribution.