By Howard Lee

In a world rampant with misinformation, a public institution has done the unforgivable – participate in it. Or so we all thought.

The Media Literacy Council sparked public controversy when it posted a video on its social media platform featuring its animated hero, “Sherlock”, listing the different kinds of “fake news” that people should be wary of. The list included false context, imposter content, manipulated content, misleading content, clickbait and satire.

It didn’t take online users long to point out that satire was excluded from Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA), and had a field day ripping MLC apart for, ironically, “spreading fake news”.

MLC had little choice but to post what amounted to a plausible apology. “We acknowledge that the post and infographic gave the wrong impression that satire was fake news, which was not the intent,” claimed its Facebook post. “We are sorry for the confusion and will review our material.”

That, unfortunately, did not sate the displeasure of its critics, some who demanded that MLC state unambiguously that satire and clickbait are not fake news, and by extension, not subject to legal action under POFMA.

In this hullabaloo, two issues have slipped wider public scrutiny – the exasperatedly poor understanding in Singapore about what exactly constitutes “fake news”, and an even more dismal understanding of how we should deal with it.
Why is fake news always about POFMA?

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To begin, MLC is not completely wrong. In her analysis of “fake news”, media researcher Prof Renee Hobbs included satire as one form of information commonly associated with disinformation. Hobbs’ categorisation was also used by Singapore University of Technology and Design professor and MLC member Lim Sun Sun in her op-ed leading up to POFMA.
Hobbs’ categorisation, however, was not meant to bring disrepute to satire, but rather to point out the difficulty of having one proper definition of “fake news”. Hence, nuancing in how we understand and react to misinformation is critical.

Somewhere between Hobbs, Lim and MLC’s video, we’ve completely forgotten about this nuancing, and it is not difficult to understand why.

Throughout the entire POFMA debate, Singaporeans were led to believe in definite categories of truth and falsehoods, facts and lies, legal and illegal content. Since POFMA, we have effectively structured our entire approach to online content along these line.
It is even more telling that, at time of writing, not a single office holder, not even those who constitute the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods tasked to evaluate “fake news” in the lead up to POFMA, spoke up to correct MLC’s mistake. Did they not care about the misinformation, or perhaps they don’t even know the difference?

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Perhaps the Select Committee and our leaders might not have any appreciation for nuances, but surely we as citizens must?

Even before its first use, it is already clear that POFMA has done Singapore a massive disservice. We evaluate the information we received along lines of legality, completely ignoring the nuancing and finesses that comes with evaluating and using the information we receive.

What kind of literacy is this, MLC?

This finesses should have been what we inculcate into our young minds – Hobbs even suggested that pre-kindergarten toddlers be taught how to evaluate information using frames. And this is where MLC’s gross incompetence showed up.

MLC’s apology on the incident claims that their aim for the video was “to raise awareness among youths and the general public about the need to be aware of the ways in which misinformation or fake news can be spread, and encourage readers to understand the context in which information is presented”.

What context are they talking about? The one where “Sherlock” lumps satire together with imposter content as “crime”, the one where he brushes off satire as “something not to be taken seriously”, or MLC’s broader brain-numbing, non-interventionist panacea of “click smartly, click wisely, click kindly”?

Peter Lunt and Sonia Livingstone wrote that the most lofty ideal of media literacy should be to encourage “active and informed participation in a revitalised democracy”, an ambition that, unfortunately, most national media literacy campaigns fall dismally short on.

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Satire in not just rubbish or inconsequential material. A lot of it is pointed political critique. Appreciating the value that satire brings makes us more aware and motivated as political beings, better able to call out political manipulation when we see it.

On the other hand, the world is now under increasing pressure from propaganda, another common point of “fake news” categorisation. The falsehoods perpetrated by powerful political actors using flawed ideology is undermining the very institutions that democracy depends on. What are MLC’s pointers to inoculate us against propaganda? Maddeningly, zilch.

It looks like MLC, for all its promises, has not risen above the tide, either forgetting or ignoring this basic understanding of media literacy. Its “public education” efforts are dumbing us down, not creating a “better internet” where Singaporeans are confident user of online information. They encourage us to either run to the safety of the authorities at the slightest possibility of falsehood, or avoid such content completely.

That is not media literacy. That is information tyranny. Singaporeans, you can do better.


Update: Law Minister K Shanmugam has confirmed MLC’s error on 13 September, Friday and clarified that satire does not fall under the ambit of POFMA.