SINGAPORE: The two major local media organisations advocated fact-checking as a countermeasure against the trend of fake news online as they appeared at public hearings for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs) on Friday (Mar 23).
In a written submission to the special parliamentary panel, senior editors from Channel NewsAsia recommended the establishment of an independent, transparent fact-checking “council, committee or body” to identify, assess and react to DOFs quickly.
Depending on the falsehood’s scale and platform of conveyance, the council should recommend to the appropriate enforcement agency suitable remedial actions. These include compulsory takedowns, corrections issued to platforms, ordered clarifications by the source and public education efforts aimed at addressing specific DOFs, said Channel NewsAsia.
“The council should be appointed by and accountable to Parliament,” it added. "As a crucial tool of public trust, the work, findings and recommendations of the council must also be open to public scrutiny.”
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which publishes newspapers like The Straits Times and Berita Harian, largely echoed similar points in its suggestion of a “full-time fact-checking alliance”.
But the two companies had different suggestions about the makeup of a proposed fact-checking body. SPH said it should comprise the likes of media players and industry practitioners, with representatives from Government bodies and commercial entities allowed to participate.
“SPH is open to participating in such an alliance, and/or to work with other media organisations to form this coalition,” it added.
Channel NewsAsia, on the other hand, said the body should include academia, non-governmental organisations, civil society, the legal community and other social groups representative of Singapore society.
“It is proposed that the body established in Singapore not include representatives of the mainstream media,” Channel NewsAsia’s editors wrote. “It is important that in conducting its work, the fact-checking body must also be able to independently assess news and information, including that which is published by the mainstream media.”
However, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng, who sits on the committee, said at the hearing that the effectiveness of such a body was “debatable”.
“Time is of the essence and I wonder ... shouldn’t (fact checking) be something all content providers, producers, as well as carriers ... should put in even more effort to address in the first instance?” he asked.
In response, Mr Jaime Ho, Channel NewsAsia’s chief editor of digital news, said: “A hundred per cent. That would be the main approach we would take, and that’s what we’ve always done.
“On many occasions, the Government could be one of the key arbiters of what is truth or what is not truth in these particular instances. So when we do need to fact-check and verify, what’s crucial then would be for the Government to be able to work as quickly as possible with the media, and to put out the correct information as quickly as possible.”
WHAT IS FAKE NEWS, EXACTLY?
Channel NewsAsia and SPH also each suggested at least three minimum criteria for authorities to take into account when assessing online falsehoods.
For Channel NewsAsia, the content must be proven to be false - that is, predicated on a fabrication and not based on fact. The content must also reside online on websites, blogs, social media posts, plain text messages and “ephemeral” platforms such as Snapchat, among others. The content must have been created and circulated deliberately, as opposed to a genuine inadvertent error.
It must have had the intent, said Channel NewsAsia, to achieve any of the following: Influence democratic processes; compromise national security; undermine the judiciary; affect racial or religious harmony or manipulate financial and economic outcomes.
Channel NewsAsia also added that “there should be thresholds with a combination of metrics to determine reach and frequency to decide what a DOF is, and whether and how to address it”.
SPH’s proposed “tests” for online falsehoods were along the same lines of intent, significance and virality or reach. It also suggested excluding cases of genuine errors later corrected, reports marked as satire or parody, and false information spread by individuals wanting to help or warn loved ones.
The possible restriction of free speech was additionally raised as a “key concern” for SPH. “Public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest,” it wrote.
“Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law.”
The website Mothership.sg, which styles itself as a “community news service”, also weighed in here, writing it would be “crucial” for different ministries to have the same understanding of DOFs and required remedial actions.
QUALITY JOURNALISM MAKES A DIFFERENCE
The media outlets also outlined the roles they could play in battling online misinformation. Channel NewsAsia said it would have a duty to “extensively and appropriately” report on DOFs identified by the proposed fact-checking body.
“Such reporting by the mainstream media is likely to give the DOF (even if debunked) greater reach and visibility. This is unavoidable, but necessary,” it said.
A second and “long-term” role is to raise public awareness of the dangers of DOFs.
“Channel NewsAsia will continue to be an accurate, credible and trusted source of news and information,” the editors wrote. “Capabilities and newsrooms must continue to be strengthened, to address the problem of DOFs … via high-quality journalism, fact-checking and in-depth reporting.”
“Through its news platforms, Channel NewsAsia will, as part of its reporting ... and where appropriate, independently report on deliberate disinformation as part of regular news coverage.”
Channel NewsAsia also said it hoped to work with social media and search engines.
SPH said mainstream media played a “critical” role as “honest brokers” to help readers distinguish between credible news and misleading or false reports.
“The consumers of news content, i.e. the audience, must also see the need for and support the continued existence of a responsible mainstream media in Singapore,” it added.
ARE NEW LAWS NEEDED?
SPH also spoke of the need for legislation - either new or amended, and for the likes of social media channels and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and more.
The onus must be put on them, said SPH, “to take responsibility for the content they choose to publish and promote”.
“They should be required to act faster when falsehoods spread on their platforms, and to disclose the identities of creators of deliberate falsehoods,” it added.
“Any legislation … should require social networks and media websites with a significant reach to establish a monitoring or complaints mechanism that will allow them to be swiftly alerted to fake, offending or otherwise prohibited content. They should then be required to remove such content within a short but reasonable timeframe, and be subjected to an impactful fine for any failure to do so.”
SPH then pointed out that existing laws give authorities “some scope” to tackle online falsehoods, but are “mostly limited” to content creators and providers rather than distributors such as social networks.
It emphasised that legislation should not lead to further restrictions on “constructive” public discourse or “reputable” content creators such as news media.
Any new legislation should also clarify issues such as affording the chance to appeal allegations of fake news, said SPH, and whether the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor or accused.
Speaking at the public hearing, Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times, said that the Government "should have a care in applying any legislation".
"The newsgathering process is not a neat and tidy one," he explained.
"Information doesn't come to us in a completely nicely packaged form. It often comes in bits and pieces ... and it's incumbent on our journalists and editors to go out there and check and verify and pull the strands together and make interpretations and judgments. In the process, sometimes we get a complete picture, but sometimes our assumptions may not be completely correct.
"I worry the legislation you have in mind will be so broad and sweeping it could impinge on our ability to do what we do, day to day," he said. "There's also the possibility of differences in interpretation and opinion which could then be labelled as DOFs - which could impact the willingness and readiness of members of the public to share information with us."
MOTHERSHIP'S POSITION ON LAWS
Mothership.sg also voiced its concern over potential “unintended consequences” of legislation. Managing director Lien We King said this at the hearing but admitted his team was “quite conflicted” as they could also understand “why some may believe it’s necessary”.
“If the government chooses the way of more regulation ... we urge lawmakers to consider its impact on the flow of ideas and creativity, in view of the current scenario in Singapore - a local media industry that is languishing," the website wrote in its earlier submission.
Speaking at the public hearing, Mr Lien said: “It is our view there exists a perceived public bias against local mainstream media, that they are less able to operate independently due to their unique relationship with the Government. If we are wrong, we stand corrected. But if that’s the case, we are concerned Singaporeans may lose even more trust in local media and publishers, if they assume operators like us are simply not as free due to more legislation.
“In this case, what would stop them from turning to overseas media companies for information about Singapore?”
When questioned by Member of Parliament Edwin Tong, Mr Lien added: “If the legislation is too blunt, I wonder if it might create a ... I won’t call it a climate of fear, but perhaps it’ll make people more mindful about actively participating in public discourse. They may have a view, but because of legislation, be less willing to share that view.”
To this, Mr Tong said: “No one is saying you can’t articulate your views ... So long as you keep to within what is not an online falsehood, then there’s nothing to fear, right?
What you’re saying, really, is you would support … legislation, but the question becomes how we draft it, how we differentiate it. But the fundamental objective of having legislation - to effectively, robustly tackle online falsehoods - you have no disagreement with?”
Mr Lien replied: “We do not.”