Falsehoods: Fight manipulation – by malignant forces as well as government

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Was the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods caught flatfooted by developments in Malaysia? Has it now been shown up to be an overkill, if not a step backward, for any society which deigns to be First World and progressive? I hope not.

Malaysia repealed its own controversial anti-fake news law introduced in April.  The law, created by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, made it an offence to create, publish or disseminate any fake news or any publication containing fake news. Those found guilty faced up to six years in prison and fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($165,000). Current and second-time PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself was investigated under the fake news law just before the May general elections after he claimed people working for the Najib administration were responsible for “sabotaging” his plane, almost preventing him from registering as an election candidate.

The Malaysian Senate, dominated by the opposition (a situation which some observers say can be rectified by simply sacking all the anachronistic remnants of a discredited regime), has blocked the move which will go back to the Dewan Rakyat for another vote and final approval.

In a further act of faith in the ability of Malaysian citizens to exercise their democratic rights and discern truth from fiction or outright lies, immediately after the May elections, PM-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim praised Malaysiakini, a social media news website, for its courage to report objectively in the face of official intimidation. There are also plans to see through a press freedom law.

Thus, while our yet-to-be First World neighbour is moving one direction forward into the 21st century Digital Age, Singapore is moving backward.

In a 317-page report (no less) released on Thursday (September 20), the committee made 22 recommendations to deal with online falsehoods, with the hope of achieving the following objectives:

  1. Nurture an informed public;
  2. Reinforce social cohesion and trust;
  3. Promote fact-checking;
  4. Disrupt online falsehoods; and
  5. Deal with threats to national security and sovereignty.

The recommendations for the second and third objectives are non-legislative and are more like commonsense suggestions of social inoculation to be fleshed out. Almost motherhood and non-controversial.

The real meat and none too subtle intention is the fourth aim – disrupt online falsehoods  – and, as an extension, the fifth aim of dealing with elements which are out to undermine the existence of the country. No quarrel with the last objective.

Disrupting online falsehoods, in principle, seems like a play it safe aim. Better to act first, however knee-jerk the move may be, than hesitate and allow more harm and mayhem to spread. The specifics – the so-called calibrations or balanced approach to make sure each law suits the offence – have yet to be spelt out.

I agree with The Straits Times which concluded in its editorial yesterday: “The committee’s canvassing of a wide range of views helped raise awareness of the severity of this threat. The laws to combat it should undergo a similar process. This will help nurture a more informed public – another key weapon in the fight against disinformation.”

In fact, the best weapon in whatever arsenal one can build up against online falsehoods and anti-national security cyberthreats is an educated public, as suggested by retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan. Objective No 1: Nurture an informed public.

Hence, I also agree with national security expert Dr Shashi Jayakumar: “It’s really (about) the inner resilience of the people … the inner core in terms of how we can steel ourselves, and educationally in terms of critical thinking to withstand quite insidious campaigns which may well play out not just over years but decades.”

The game in cyberspace today is manipulation against which you cannot hide under the cloak of neutrality.

As one cyber expert puts it, “You are not algorithms. But you are also not neutral. And because you have the power to amplify messages, people also want to manipulate you. That’s just par for the course.”

The real fight against fake news is, therefore, to prevent manipulation of information – by disruptive elements, including malignant anti-Singapore forces, as well as any government trying to cling on to power through the stifling of legitimate dissenting views.

Tan Bah Bah is former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.