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Select committee beating old drum

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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After three days of hearing by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, are we already convinced that we need to act? The answer is 50/50.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Dr Shashi Jayakumar and Dr Michael Raska have observed, in exchanges, that fake news could be the first line of attack on Singapore by enemies.

Organised fake news and disinformation campaigns could already be influencing and undermining Singaporean society, said national security expert Dr Jayakumar:

“An aggressor could attempt to ‘peel off’ one particular ethnic group or religion, using social media and disinformation to appeal … to deeply ingrained historical, cultural issues, setting off one group against others, or even against the Government,” he said. “Singapore can be a sandbox for subversion.”

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Dr Jayakumar heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

His colleague, Dr Raska, said: “(Social media) can create new fault lines, amplifying tensions or issues that have not been previously thought of, and these can be rapidly disseminated or diffused and suddenly become very important.”

On cyber attacks which have been made against government ministries, Shanmugam said: “To the extent that one can know about these things, one can assume that these are attacks that originate from outside, perhaps from a foreign state actor.”

The threats are both physical  – cyber attacks to disable or cripple systems – and psychological – undermining national unity.  The disinformation threats would include malicious fake news and falsehoods.

Few Singaporeans would disagree that it is important to deal with such threats. The very nature of this country makes it a sandbox target for such attacks. We are small. We are multi-racial, with family, social, religious and business ties to people in all the countries in the region. Seriously, we know this, we live it, in case some of the foreign experts have not noticed.

The select committee has not dealt with or offered anything substantially new so far. Many of the examples which have been brought up by the experts have been reported before.

Shanmugam is realistic enough to accept that there is no single silver bullet to solve the problem. The range of solutions or antidotes, as he called them, would include fact-checking (however tedious) organically within the society, ceaseless education, building and strengthening bonds within the community, targeting the specific threats, active intervention by state agencies, working out a conceptual framework and constantly evolving new counter techniques since cyber attackers are also constantly learning new ways to cause havoc.

The big danger in the fight against these threats would be to inadvertently sour the ground in our eagerness for quick answers and to use a sledgehammer first instead of a precision tool or the more effective method of persuasion.

The first mistake is that you have to suppress or discourage dissent in the name of preventing a fault line.  You may just be postponing it and creating a larger and more explosive one down the road.

The second error is to misjudge disagreement as offering a falsehood and being more comfortable with views or facts which echo yours – the very fault which you think people living in bubbles are guilty of.

The third own goal you may be scoring is that by cleaning things up for society, you think you are “saving” democracy. You are not, you are simply developing a nation of conformists with not an iotum of creativity in their bones.

The fourth is to harbour the massive misconception that a totally controlled state propaganda machinery can be the sole purveyor of unvarnished or incontestable truth or real news. The reason younger Singaporeans turn to social media is that MSM is too blatantly one-sided.

Fake news and falsehoods may well thrive because of the loss of mainstream media’s credibility – and of a perceived tightening of civil rights and a lack of outlets for differing views.

To quote British Prime Minister Theresa May, “National security is the first duty of government but we are also committed to reversing the substantial erosion of civil liberties.”

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.

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