Why fake news is getting harder to spot (and the impact it could have)

Why fake news is getting harder to spot (and the impact it could have)

With a public hearing of the issue about to start, the programme Talking Point investigates the emerging challenges of separating fact from fiction, and what fakery is possible.

Hoax photo Punggol Waterway Terrace
The 2016 hoax photo of the "roof collapse". 

SINGAPORE: Back in 2016, a report of a roof collapse at the Housing and Development Board project Punggol Waterway Terraces, with a photo of the upper storeys in a crumbled state, set social media abuzz.

Reports that Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had collapsed during a United Nations summit, and that a Filipino family had caused a scuffle during a Thaipusam procession, had the same effect.

But which ones were real and which were not?

In the case of the roof collapse, the police, the Singapore Civil Defence Force as well as HDB and town council officers rushed to the scene, only to learn that it was fake news – wasting resources and causing alarm. The other two reports were also false.

Such “deliberate online falsehoods” intended to mislead the reader will be the subject of a public hearing starting next Wednesday, which a Select Committee will hold to examine the threat of fake news and whether new laws are needed.

A government poll last year found that 75 per cent of respondents had read fake news at least occasionally, and 25 per cent had shared information they later discovered to be false.

And as the Mediacorp programme Talking Point discovers, the limits of possible fakery are being stretched, making it harder to weed out the frauds.


A lot of online falsehoods are being made to look legitimate through sophisticated machinery, with bots and fake accounts that like, retweet and comment on fake news.

As Singapore University of Design and Technology media and communication professor Lim Sun Sun explained, purveyors of misinformation are using techniques similar to those used to generate real news, which is why many fall for fake news.

“They’d use the same style of expression (and) headlines. They’d also buff up their stories with heavily doctored and manipulated videos and photographs,” she said.

With today’s emerging technologies, such as face trackers and voice synthesisers, one can even create a fake video of what a person is saying or doing.

National University of Singapore communications and new media associate professor Lonce Wyse said: 

With artificial intelligence, we’re able to create media entirely … with a very realistic look and feel to it.

"For example, we can train our (computer) network on thousands of faces so it learns to understand … how mouths moves and how our eyes blink, and then map one person’s face onto another person’s face."

In that way, even a person’s actions can look as if another person is performing them. And one need not look far for tools to put together a fake speech: Editing software can make a manipulated video look real.


Social media makes the problem worse because of its social factor, whereby being the first to share breaking news thought to be of interest to one’s friends may be seen as something welcomed.

People therefore tend to be “trigger-happy”, said Dr Lim, who is researching the reasons people are unable to distinguish between fake and real news.

“In the online environment, falsehood tends to get momentum very quickly," she added.

The more it gets repeated, the greater the likelihood of people believing it to be true. This is the phenomenon known as the illusory truth effect.

There is also the optimism bias phenomenon, whereby people are overly confident in their ability to tell real news from fake.

“Then you let your guard down … You share it without thinking (and) discover later that it might be fake,” said Prof Lim.


Ms Francesca Nathan, a Fake News, Lies and Spins Course instructor at the NUS, believes it is important to understand the dangers of misinformation.

Singapore is especially vulnerable, with different races and communities living close to each other, she said. And fake news could push these communities apart.

For example, the fabrication in 2015 that a Filipino family’s complaints had sparked a scuffle between the police and Thaipusam participants set off a flurry of xenophobic reactions among netizens.

“When you have communities distrusting each other, believing that one group has certain advantages or an agenda against them, that could cause distress,” said Ms Nathan. “By inciting those kinds of strong feelings, you can pit one community against another.”

And fake news can be created not only by individuals but also by groups, companies, even foreign governments.

Mr Benjamin Ang, who heads the Cyber and Homeland Defence Programme at the Nanyang Technological University, said a country can use fake news to drive a wedge between the different races, religions or economic classes of another country, destabilising it.

Between 2015 and last year, 126 million American Facebook users were said to have been exposed to more than 80,000 posts from 470 accounts reportedly controlled by a foreign country that wanted to meddle in the United States Presidential Election.

(File Photo: AFP)

Even fake news of a stock market crash could be almost as bad as an actual crash, said Mr Ang, as the misinformation could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“News of a bank running out of money is almost as bad as the bank actually running out of money because it could make it happen when people panic and they … make a run on the bank,” he added.


The potential fault lines here are not the only reason Singapore is vulnerable to fake news.

“In some ways, we’re very trusting because we’ve been safe for so long,” said Mr Ang. “We don’t really stop to suspect when we receive information.”

The Government’s response to the issue has been to task the Select Committee, formed in January by Parliament, to recommend solutions.

The committee is headed by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong and includes seven members from the People’s Action Party, one from the Opposition and one Nominated Member of Parliament.

It has received 162 written submissions ahead of the three-week hearing to tackle the problem.

select committee on online falsehoods
Members of the Select Committee (clockwise from top left): Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh, Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, Minister K Shanmugam, MPs Rahayu Mahzam, Edwin Tong, Seah Kian Peng and Sun Xueling, NMP Chia Yong Yong and Minister Desmond Lee​​​​​​​.

Ms Sun Xueling, one of the PAP MPs in the committee, said it will be exploring the potential consequences of fake news and the possible measures to be taken, among other things.

She is the MP for the area where Punggol Waterway Terraces is located, and she recalled feeling “quite alarmed” as she hurried there after seeing the news appearing on her Facebook feed.

It was a few days before she was due to give birth.

“When I saw the picture, it looked very real to me … People were obviously distracted by it,” she said. “I remember thinking to myself (while driving there) that whatever it is, don’t deliver (the baby) in the car.”

When asked about speculation that any new laws created could be used to silence government critics, Ms Sun said she understood those concerns

“Whatever the measures … the underlying principle has to be that they’re to target online falsehoods – deliberate online falsehoods – not honest opinions, not honest commentaries,” she said. 

“I think all of us want to see real, accurate information online.”

Watch the programme Talking Point here. New episodes every Thursday on Mediacorp Channel 5.

Source: CNA/dp