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Institute of Policy Studies Troubled by Overuse of “Fake News” Term, Seeks Definition




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In a written and oral presentation this week, Carol Soon and Shawn Goh of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) expressed concern that the term “fake news” has been used too broadly. Dr. Soon, a senior research fellow and Mr. Goh, a research assistant, sought to define what deliberate online falsehoods are, especially in the current context in Singapore.

On Wednesday, the two researchers from ISP made a report in Parliament to the select committee concerning deliberate online falsehoods. This report was posted on the Parliament website. In it, the researchers said that the “overly broad use” of the term “fake news” presents several problems. If the term is not clearly defined, prescribing ways to combat this occurrence will be almost futile.

According to the researchers, fake news is given parameters by industry players and academics as “deliberately fabricated with the intent to deceive, motivated by economic gains or political influence and assumes the disguise or trappings of an authoritative news source.” These parameters help differentiate what is really fake news from other types of information that is untrue—such as hoaxes, parodies, rumors, conspiracy theories, satire, or simply poor reporting.

The two researchers commended the select committee for concentrating on “deliberate online falsehoods” as opposed to just fake news, due to the fact that “deliberate online falsehoods” encompass different kinds of false information that have been made up and could cause real danger or damage. These types of false information are also still evolving.

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K Shanmugam, the Law and Home Affairs Minister who is a member of the select committee, asked the researchers questions about their written report. Mr. Shanmugam asked for an explanation on the researchers’ suggested classification of these falsehoods into “high breach” and “low breach” incident categories.

The IPS researchers explained that “low breach incidents” tend to cause anxiety and inconvenience. They gave as an example a piece on the website “All Singapore Stuff,” which featured a photo of a rooftop of Punngol Waterway Terraces that had supposedly collapsed. Netizens quickly refuted the false information, and the website later deleted the post and issued an apology.

According to the researchers,  “In such low breach incidents, the stakeholders involved are often able to quickly establish the facts and debunk the falsehood. Furthermore, the timely coverage by both mainstream media as well as online websites help spread the corrections.”

However, “high breach incidents” are a larger threat to the public, since they are “coordinated and insidious efforts targeted at disrupting democratic processes in a country.” And while there are no recorded instances of “high breach incidents” in the country thus far, Mr. Shanmugam pointed out that it doesn’t exclude the possibility that these exist.

High breach incidents also pose a threat to national stability by making social divisions even deeper. In their report, the IPS researchers cited the gubernatorial elections in Jakarta last year as an example of this, when in the midst of issues of communism from China being a threat as well as the Islamic religion being under threat, a video with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok), who was then governor, went viral. This video, which showed him making anti-Islam remarks in a speech, had been doctored.

The researchers pointed out the real world consequences of the doctored video, including protests against Ahok, which were attended hundreds of thousands of  Muslims, who clamored for Ahok’s arrest.

These deliberate online falsehoods are a serious threat in our times due do the fact that there is much more widespread access for anyone to create and spread content digitally, the researchers said. They also factored in issues such as virality, filter bubbles and echo chamber effects, which only serve to strengthen the biases and judgments people already have.

Unfortunately, social media algorithms only make the problems worse. According to Dr. Soon and Mr. Goh, “Algorithms predict what people like based on what they consume and personalise their information exposure, thereby reinforcing filter bubbles and echo chambers where they are exposed to information and opinions that are consistent with their pre-existing beliefs.”

Mr. Seah Kian Peng, another member of the select committee, inquired as to the possible pain points for the country in the light of deliberate online falsehoods.

Dr Soon replied that the country’s pain points have to do with national security, language, religion, and race, “Our pain points are our enemy’s sweet spots. If we look at the kind of … falsehoods perpetrated in other countries, it is clearly reflective of the social, political and cultural milieu in that particular country context.”

According to Mr. Goh, conflict between immigrants and nationals must also be considered as a possible pain point.

Some netizens claim that “fake news” is part of human nature

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Others emphasized that we all have a part to play in fighting fake news

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