By Howard Lee
At the Parliamentary hearing for the Select Committee on fake news held in the evening of 27 March, a panel of individuals comprising Vice-President of human rights group MARUAH Ngiam Shih Tung, chief editor of The Online Citizen Terry Xu, freelance journalist Kirsten Han and myself were effectively asked to swear our allegiance to the majority of Singaporeans.
Committee member Dr Janil Puthucheary referred to a survey published by REACH that indicated 92% of Singaporeans want tougher legislation against “fake news”, with a majority vouching for perpetrators to be punished.
It came to a point where he was asking my panel if we agree or disagree with the position – were we the 92% or the 8%?
The reference to the REACH survey was odd – despite the fact that the Law Minister has referenced it as early June 2017, the results was published on the REACH website on 26 March, and then reported by media on 27 March, the same day my panel was scheduled to appear before the committee. On that count alone, it would have been more than reasonable for my panel to reject the line of questioning altogether, as it would not have made sense to expect us to analyse the report in that short a period of time.
Even so, it did not take us to quickly affirm that “we are one of the 8%”. And looking at relatively brief information provided by the survey, it is not difficult to see why we – or at least myself – have such reservations about its validity and accuracy.
Was “fake news” defined as “not fully accurate” news?
The first glaring issue would be the definition of fake news that the survey participants were asked to align with. One would assume that this is represented by the survey question, “How often do you come across online news that you think are not fully accurate?”
If “not fully accurate” news is the benchmark for “fake news”, then this is certainly worrying. On any average day, even mainstream media would not be able to avoid making a few mistakes here and there – even our ministers have on occasion pointed out that mainstream media have misquoted them, or even to simplify issues and turned tabloid. Our national broadsheet has also not refrained from publishing an election poll that, regardless of its legality, had proven to be inaccurate to election results. In the mind of the 92%, do these also constitute as “not fully accurate”?
Moreover, throughout the days of hearings, the Committee was presented with a broad range of “deliberate online falsehoods” ranging from cyber-terrorism to political satire. But surely, to cast “fake news” as news that is “not fully accurate” has gone way beyond these boundaries, as it can potentially cover factual news that have a few mistakes in them?
How does the majority of 92% agree with the rest of the submissions?
This then becomes problematic when many of the experts that presented before the Select Committee have noted that a one-legislation-fits-all solution to combating fake news would not work, and even the Committee has acknowledged on many occasions that there is a need to consider a wide range of possible solutions.
To put it as the REACH survey has, that Singaporeans want laws to outlaw even the slightest of inaccuracies, not only suggests that we have a draconian populace intolerant of the slightest mistakes, but also broadly contradicts the opinion of most of those who presented before the Committee, including those who came before my panel.
What exactly was the benchmark for “fake news”?
Even more worrying, respondents to the survey appear to be making a decision on what constitutes “fake news” based on their own assumptions, which can be very diverse. This could have been averted by REACH showing them a series of news articles and asking if they could identify if it was fake, and if and where they might have seen it. It is, of course, not possible to do this via a telephone survey, which was what REACH has done. But if that were to be done, such as by other studies I have seen conducted on misinformation, it would have allowed REACH a better benchmark with which to rate responses.
Instead, we are left guessing what participants could be thinking about between deciding that “not really accurate” news is fake news, and believing that laws need to be passed to curb them. Did REACH give them any samples to think about – for example, the articles that led to the shutdown of The Real Singapore, the story of the police snooping on our Whatsapp chats, halal pork, the Punggol flat roof collapse, or even a placebo article? Each story lies on a different part of the “falsehood” scale. Would it not be fair to assume that Singaporeans would react differently to each?
How do respondents judge media they have never read?
This point on definition becomes even more controversial when we consider the difference between consumption and identification of fake news sources. Survey respondents identified that their “major sources of news and current events” include mainstream TV, newspapers, radio, social media, mainstream media online sites, online news aggregator and mobile messaging services.
However, when it came to evaluating where they “usually come across fake news”, not only did the biggest media category – mainstream TV, newspapers, radio – disappear from the charts, but a new category has suddenly appeared – socio-political websites.
Granted, the survey question refers specifically to “online fake news” – which by itself is clearly problematic, given that the topic had been “not fully accurate” news, which as mentioned above is also available in mainstream media. But are we now to believe that respondents who have not read socio-political websites would be able to find fake news in them?
Were solutions other than legislation offered as a choice?
Perhaps the most damning is why REACH decided to query respondents on legislation only, perceptibly to the exclusion of any other solutions available to them. Throughout the days of Select Committee hearings, Committee members have continued to insist that they are considering a range of solutions, with legislation as only one of many options. While they hardly elaborated on these other options, we should take it in good faith that other solutions are possibly on the cards. Possibly.
So why has REACH seemingly limited the possible solution to legislation only? If there were other options available to respondents – public education, prompt clarification, independent fact-checking organisations, press councils, collaboration with social media giants, take your pick – what were they and how did respondents vote for these options? The REACH survey doesn’t tell.
What could have been, but never was
In retrospect, the REACH would appear to be the only survey that attempts to assess the real-life impact of fake news on Singapore shores. It contains a high potential for understanding Singaporeans’ response to it, or what might be called an impact study.
That didn’t happen. What it appears to have done was hinge on the assumption that fake news legislation is a clear possibility, and then proceeded to ask respondents as if it was the only logical possibility. It was also not clear if what the survey had in mind as “fake news” was also the same understanding that the respondents had. Moreover, to then make the link to suggest that 92% are willing to prosecute “not fully accurate news” is a gross misrepresentation of their logical faculties.
What we should really be more concerned about now is that the Select Committee seems quite inclined to see this survey as clear evidence that the majority of Singaporeans want harsh laws against “fake news”. This is complicated by the fact that the Committee had at various junctures of the hearing asked submitters for their views on legal action against deliberately fabricated and completely untrue material, instead of “not fully accurate” news.
Either way, on our part, Singaporeans should care very little to put faith in this survey, unless REACH can provide more information about it to prove otherwise. At this point, I’d rather be one of the 8%. And I’d suggest you do, too.