SINGAPORE: The Select Committee set up to look into the issue of deliberate online falsehoods has made several recommendations on how public institutions can maintain the public's trust.
In its report released on Thursday (Sep 20), it said public institutions should respond to online falsehoods by providing information to the public in a timely manner.
Public institutions should also seek to pre-empt vulnerabilities and put out information in advance to inoculate the public, and ensure that they communicate with the public in clear and comprehensible terms.
The committee added that existing efforts in tackling falsehoods should be reviewed.
It said there must be transparency in communications. Apart from responding swiftly to online falsehoods, the reasons for any Government action against the falsehoods and why information is not disclosed to the public should also be furnished.
The public should also be engaged on Government strategies against online disinformation operations, and be assured of the integrity of the information the Government puts forward concerning public institutions.
READ: Public education necessary to fight against deliberate online falsehoods, says Select Committee
In total, 22 recommendations were made by the 10-member committee, which was set up in January to deal with the issue of deliberate online falsehoods.
It received 170 written representations and heard oral evidence from 65 individuals and organisations over the course of eight days in March.
The committee said that strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. Conversely, mistrust in public institutions facilitates the uptake of falsehoods, it said.
Citing the views of Dr Janis Berzins, a national security expert from Latvia who made an oral representation to the committee in March, the committee said that any gap between the authorities and society is a key vulnerability that can be used as leverage by adversaries.
Dr Berzins had also cautioned that when people lose faith in public institutions, the chances of success for disinformation operations increase significantly.
“In that regard, public institutions are a central source of information for society,” said the committee. “If people lose trust in public institutions, they may turn instead to less reliable alternative sources of information.”
EXTRA CARE MUST BE TAKEN TO PROTECT SOCIAL COHESION
Apart from reinforcing trust in public institutions and the Government, the committee also made recommendations to strengthen trust among people and communities, pointing out that Singapore’s efforts to maintain social harmony will need to evolve to address new problems.
In its report, the committee noted that Singapore’s diverse society provides fertile ground for “slow-drip” falsehoods that cause longer-term damage to society which may not always be visible.
One example was the falsehood spread by website The Real Singapore, about how a purported complaint by a Filipino family resulted in a commotion between Hindu participants and the police during a Thaipusam procession in Singapore.
“The story quickly gained traction among netizens, who did not question its veracity,” said the committee. “It led to xenophobic comments online.”
The committee said that based on the representations it received, there is a consensus that Singapore’s diversity means extra care must be taken to protect social cohesion. For example, people from the various religious organisations pointed out that divides and fault lines are very real in Singapore, with a representative from the Singapore Buddhist Federation speaking of how people motivated by religious zeal or bigotry have spread falsehoods about the Buddhist faith or Buddhism.
To that end, the committee stressed that the task of maintaining social cohesion “has been and should continue to be a priority for Singapore”.
It recommended that organisations and initiatives for the promotion of social cohesion should consider providing clarifications and information on distortions and falsehoods affecting social cohesion.
Committee member Sun Xueling said: "It’s best for us to note that we have a pretty high level of trust in public institutions in Singapore. There’s a report that states that the trust in public institutions is about 58 per cent, which is quite high by global standards."
The Government, it added, should also consider supporting or conducting research to understand society’s vulnerabilities.