tldr: Putting the cart before the horse
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has been proposed in Parliament to tackle the menace of “fake news” – the passing off of misinformation, lies and half-truths as true.
I agree that “fake news” is a problem we face today because any Tan, Dick and Hamri with internet access is a potential newsmaker and re-publisher.
What used to be just coffee-shop gossip around Tiger Beer and Teh-O can now travel at the speed of likes and “potentially”, and I say potentially with a huge pair of inverted commas around the word, cause trouble.
Hence this bill, put forward by the Ministry of Law.
But the problem with this bill, I believe, is that it is a case of putting the cart before the horse.
The heart of the issue is that “fake news” and misinformation thrives when there are few trusted sources of information and limited access to data.
And this is the case in Singapore, where data is fanatically hoarded by the government in the name of national security and public interest. Information of consequence is often pried out piecemeal by parliamentary questions raised by MPs.
In this data-desert, it is no surprise that misinformation, half-truths and downright lies bloom.
This sorry state of affairs is compounded by the lack of trust in what little information and data is released by the government, and the news reported by mainstream media. And what is behind this lack of trust? Every time that the govt. itself is caught out trying to spin the news.
But you can’t really blame the government for doing so, for indulging in a bit of PR. Any government, organisation or company would of course try to put a positive spin on events to make themselves look good. It’s the nature of of the beast.
The problem is that mainstream news outlets, instead of interrogating the spin, instead of asking hard questions that may perhaps embarrass a govt. spokeman or minister, instead of doing all that an independent press in a functioning democracy should, is all too often found just regurgitating press releases and priming public opinion to accept whatever is to be shoved down their throats.
Hence the scepticism of whatever is printed in the Straits Times. And I’m not even sure whether the govt. is actively pushing the media to play obedient poodle, or if the media, having grown accustomed to its cage and the luxuries of domesticity, just plays fetch because it knows no other game.
Think about it. We have an educated, discerning, and some might say cynical population. We have one of the best education systems in the world, where our school kids across the board, not just from the top schools, routinely come out tops in internationally benchmarked tests of Reading, Maths and Science (e.g. PISA). We have a globally connected citizenry that loves to travel on the most powerful passport in the world through the gates of the world’s best airport.
And even with all of that, we are worried about letting our people decide for themselves what is true and what is fake?
What we need is more information, not less. What we need is independent, trusted sources of news. Trusted not because the government says so or because they win awards in competitions organised by themselves, but trusted because they have proven themselves to be so, through detailed, thorough journalism that matches the reality that we can see with our own eyes, instead of being cropped to fit the “nation-building” agenda of the govt.
Coupled with an educated citizenry, an independent press and open access to information is the best defence against fake news, not this sledgehammer of a law that has been presented in Parliament.
Let’s not be so quick to surrender our right and responsibility to think for ourselves.
Let’s build a better Singapore, together. 🇸🇬🙋♂️
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