New fake news laws are a short-term fix

13 Aug 2019

By Deepanraj Ganesan

News Editor


We have all had our brush with it, one time or another.

It may find its way to our social media feed, written like an ordinary news piece to trick us into believing its authenticity. Sometimes, it creeps into our more personal spaces – on WhatsApp groups, for instance, shared among close friends and family.

Fake news. They are often created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers. These online falsehoods come with a malicious intent to harm public interest, and can damage our social fabric by undermining our conceptions of race, religion, or social class.

On 1 Apr, Singapore introduced new laws that give government ministers broad powers to quickly stop the dissemination of online falsehoods and punish those who create and spread them. Under these laws, ministers can direct online news sites to publish corrections to falsehoods, and order internet service providers to disable user access to errant sites.

In my opinion, these laws, which utilise censorship to tackle fake news, are not the right solution. Instead, using education to create a population that knows how to handle fake news is our best defence.

Activist groups were quick to criticise the supposed anti-fake news laws, which allow our government to be the final arbiters of truth.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based non-governmental organisation focused on advocating for press freedom, argued that the bill gives government officials “an almost entirely free hand to control content circulating online”, and deemed it “a major obstacle to the freedom to inform”.

Such consolidation of power can be dangerous if a politician abuses it to promote their own personal agenda.

But more than that, regulation alone cannot get rid of fake news. Countries such as China that use legislation to fight fake news are a testament to that.

Since 2016, the Chinese government has put in place tough restrictions on the country’s most popular social media platform, Sina Weibo. It criminalised creating or spreading online rumors that “undermine economic and social order” in a new cybersecurity law. Last year, a regulation required microblogging service providers to publicise and refute rumors when they arise.

Although millions of social media accounts have been banned since, fake news reports continue to plague Chinese platforms. As recent as last December, a fake news clean up by the Chinese government saw more than 110,000 social media accounts shut down and nearly 500,000 articles removed, according to the South China Morning Post.

I believe public education is the way forward in combating fake news, by educating citizens on how to analyse news sources through critical thinking.

In the United Kingdom, some universities such as the University of Sheffield, have started online courses for the public to learn how to spot fake news. Similarly, since 2017, Swedish schools have started to teach students in grades seven to nine on how to assess the reliability of a news item by looking at where the story comes from, and how the same story is portrayed by different media outlets.

These countries recognise that education holds an important key in grooming a generation of healthy sceptics to be able to critically examine the world, instead of believing blindly in the information they are fed.

Although it will take time for such education to produce results, in the long run, a more informed population will have the ability to filter and weed out fake news on its own.

Back home, the elderly, who are typically less media literate, are not the only ones who might fall prey to fake news.

A 2018 survey conducted by global independent market research agency Ipsos revealed that four in five Singaporeans aged 15 to 65 said they were confident in accurately spotting fake news.

But when put to the test, about 90 per cent mistakenly identified at least one out of five fake headlines as being real.

Some examples of the fake headlines that Singaporeans believed were real included "Orchard Road smoking ban to improve suburban malls’ attractiveness" and "Increasing food costs will deter eating, help Singaporeans fight obesity".

To combat this, the Ministry of Education needs to do more to teach the younger generation how to spot fake news. Like other countries, we could even implement it as a compulsory subject in schools.

The new bill is a quick fix for the government to control what is published online but at the core of the fake news problem is the inability to discern fact from fiction. As the late South African president and philanthropist Nelson Mandela once said,”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In this war against fake news, education may be our most important tool yet.