“For two days in June, journalists, publishers and policymakers will discuss concrete ways to fight the spread of fake news and improve media literacy in Asia,” the Straits Times reported on 23 May.
It was referring to the “Keep it Real: Truth and Trust in the Media” event, which is organised by the newspaper and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra).
The 2-day event will see participants “[examining] practical fact-checking projects from Asia and around the world on the first day of the conference”, and three workshops on the second day which will “discuss and identify concrete fact-checking measures and projects, including media literacy programmes and the legal and regulatory framework to tackle misinformation.”
Law and Home Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam, will be the guest of honour and give the opening address.
The event comes at a time when the Government is reviewing certain legislations to better deal with the phenomenon of fake news.
The debate, especially in the mainstream media, on the issue, however, seems to be focused on non-mainstream outlets as the only purveyors of fake news. Each time the topic is discussed, examples of “fake news” in the online alternative media are raised, while ignoring those perpetuated by the Government-controlled mainstream media.
Indeed, in his last parliamentary speech on the subject, Mr Shanmugam highlighted only examples from alternative websites which were false or fake.
And in this report of the June event, the Straits Times highlighted All Singapore Stuff which “published an article last November that the rooftop of a flat at Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed.”
It is ironic that the newspaper should – always – ignore its own failings when talking about fake news, because its false stories sometimes have a bigger impact (here and abroad) than the smaller alternative online sites.
The Straits Times’ own STOMP website, for example, put out a fake news story in 2012, way before fake news became a topic of discussion worldwide, which reported that a door in a MRT train had opened while the train was moving.
It later transpired that the one of its staff members had faked the story to, presumably, draw eyeballs to the website.
STOMP is also well-known for its numerous xenophobic stories. (See here.)
In 2014, the Straits Times’ again published a fake story about how an uncle of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, had been fed to 120 dogs.
The story was picked up by news agencies worldwide and went viral, only to be found to be fake later.
The Straits Times, however, instead of apologising, issued a rambling letter by its editor wiggling its way out of the embarrassing mess.
These are two of the more recent and noteworthy fake news put out by the mainstream media.
We wonder if these will be used as examples in the 2-day event in June.
Having said that, fake news is of course a serious issue at this point in time. They can, if left unchecked, affect very seriously real life events, and do harm to people.
But in order to tackle it, there needs to be honesty in looking at the subject, and not delude ourselves into thinking that only “professional” news agencies are to be believed or trusted, and that because they are “professional” they can do no wrong.
Adopting such a delusional view would not serve anyone in being able to discern facts from untruths.
The mainstream media in Singapore, after all, is not seen as a government mouthpiece for nothing. And as with all government mouthpieces, what it puts out must necessarily be biased and even only half-truths.
So, deal with fake news, but let’s also keep in mind that there are also other kinds of “news” which are just as insidious – such as half-truth “news” and propaganda.
And of course, “news” put out not by the newspapers but by government intelligence agencies, such as allegedly happened in 1987 with the so-called “Marxist conspiracy”, which have hijacked the entire newsroom.
The 1987 episode was “a terrible period when journalists twiddled their thumbs because an editorial decision had been made to simply run material from the Internal Security Department in full”, said Bertha Henson, former associate editor of the Straits Times.
When we say we want to tackle “fake news”, let’s do so honestly, and we should also perhaps look into the other kinds of “news” which are just as insidious.
By the way, participation in the 2-day June event will set you back $125 for members of the public and $100 for Wan-Ifra members.
And that’s not fake news.