Tightening the Screws on Social Media

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By Augustine Low

The idea that fake news is the exclusive domain of social media is in itself fake. But with the Select Committee on fake news and ominous words from the top, the writing is on the wall: social media is under threat.

Minister K Shanmugam has said more than once that Singapore is “highly susceptible” to the threat of online fake news. Remember the things he said in the run-up to the sham of a Reserved Elected Presidency?

PM Lee Hsien Loong has said that Singapore, being “highly connected and wired-up, is especially vulnerable.” He makes it seem like we are on one planet and other countries on another, that they are all non wired-up, in the age of no Internet.

PM Lee also gushed over a “powerful speech” by MP Lee Bee Wah in Parliament last week, highlighting rumours which surfaced in Malacca in 1969. Plucking a half-century old story on rumours during race riots to illustrate the perils of fake news on social media today is truly preposterous. If PM Lee is so besotted with that story, there might as well be a Select Committee to combat rumour mongering in wet markets, coffee shops and community centres, from Ang Mo Kio to Woodlands.

The fact is that fake news can just as easily be on print and broadcast media. Fake news is not only falsehoods – it is also half-truths and distortions. In a newspaper or TV report, when a headline is deliberately misleading, when key facts or contrary views and positions are deliberately omitted, when only one side of a story is purposefully presented, what do we call that? Half-truths and distortions.

Just last week, in Parliament, what we witnessed concerning the Keppel bribery scandal were dodging of questions, evasive answers and nothing resembling the whole truth. Could be even worse than outright lies. Writer Anurag Shourie said: “A half-truth is more dangerous than a lie. A lie, you can detect at some stage, but half a truth is sure to mislead you for long.”

There are many murky issues the Select Committee on fake news has to wade through. Starting from what exactly is fake news. Sure, falsehoods that incite violence and racial hatred must be weeded out. But not everything is in black and white. Who are the arbiters of truth? When does legitimate commentary and discourse become fake news?

Already, Singapore is making the news internationally for the wrong reasons. On Wed 17 Jan, United States Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to condemn President Donald Trump, comparing him to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for his sustained attacks on the media. Flake said others like Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Myanmar’s leaders have jumped on the bandwagon to scream fake news. Then he added: “Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

The fear is that in Singapore, we have a situation where the leaders have already begun with the end in mind, as they did with the Reserved Elected Presidency. Heavy-handed legislation will unduly suppress liberties and social media in Singapore, social media as it ought to be in a democratic country.

Augustine Low is an op-ed contributor and his views do not represent the views of the editors.