We may survive fake news but not sterility

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Are we heading for safer, brighter days or darker ones on the journey to being a truly First World nation? If we take a wrong turn following the Select Committee’s hearings on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, we may sour up whatever we may have achieved to encourage a vibrant society of citizens fully and fearlessly engaged in a functioning democracy. This, to me, is a far, far greater concern than trying to stamp out fake news. Too heavy a price to pay, if we overdo it.

One should, therefore, be glad that Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Dr Gillian Koh: “Let me assure you we are dealing with deliberate online falsehoods. Let’s stick to that.” Yes, let’s.

The Minister and the public policy researcher were earlier discussing Dr Koh’s point that online falsehoods have a place in public discourse as she argued for people to be engaged so that people can come around to seeing it’s false. Shanmugam disagreed asserting that such falsehoods have no place in a democracy. Allowing them to circulate would lead to people being misled.

His assertion was supported by constitutional law expert Dr Thio Li-ann who said deliberate fake news does not deserve protection. The spread of such  disinformation impedes public debate and destroys the very reason for free speech itself.

I think Dr Gillian Koh was rightly persistent in disagreeing and saying you have to also engage and persuade people that something is false.

The key word is engagement. This goes to the heart of public discourse and the dissemination of information and ideas.

You can draft any law you wish and try and enforce it and you may think you have gotten rid of fake news online and in print. But you may just be sweeping everything under the carpet. It is practically impossible to check everything and punish millions of cell-phone, notebook, smartwatch and laptop users. People can also whisper to one another, take pictures and so on.

And, if you believe people will flock to mainstream media for “credible news” just because it comes from a government press release or its equivalent, that may be a mistake. It is in the nature of news reporting, as attested in every newspaper writing workshop I have ever attended, that news must necessarily be slightly anti-establishment to have traction, that objective news reporting must always push the envelop to force action.

Already, Warren Fernandez, SPH editor-in-chief, has cautioned against legislation so broad that it deters sharing of information and hinders the work of mainstream media journalists.  (It) can scare people from offering information, he said.

Scare does not begin to tell the story. I notice that a participant from a law firm recommended a focus on prosecuting sources of fake news, as “take-down notices” alone may be insufficient. “The strongest measure is to make sure there are equally prohibitive consequences for the creation of the article in the first place,” he said.

Such a sentiment represented just one end of the spectrum in the hearings and research papers, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure there will be a full range to reflect the nuances and exceptions.

In the end, the committee should recognise that falsehoods in themselves are not something new. They are now being targeted because of the instantaneous and extraordinary wide reach of modern social media technology.

Internet falsehoods are a festering disease.

After you produce the medicine to deal with the virus, the big picture worry is that you may just wipe out everything else around it and create a sterile environment of correctness and playsafe attitudes. And this is much too dangerous a price to pay for any society which wants to be innovative.

Falsehoods we may live with and survive, within current laws. But sterility is the beginning of our end. Inoculation, in the form of education and engagement, is the real solution.

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