Singapore's ‘Fake News’ Claim Used to Censor Free Press

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‘If we want to guard ourselves against fake news, we’re going to have to do more to boost our bullshit detectors. That can’t be achieved by increasing criminalization and legal action.’

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“Fake news.” We heard it during the U.S. presidential election, and now there’s no escape. Donald Trump might have kicked off the habit of branding anything and everything he doesn’t like to hear in the media as fake news, but there’s no shortage of powerful people happy to jump on the bandwagon.

Singapore is no exception. Earlier this month Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam indicated that the government was looking into ways to deal with fake news, as well as false allegations against the police. If this comes to pass – and, considering Singapore’s political context and the ruling party’s parliamentary supermajority, it most likely will – it will be yet another layer of control and state intervention into free speech and discussion in the city-state.

It seems stupid to argue against something that purports to protect society from falsehoods and hoaxes, but when talking about fake news we cannot ignore issues of asymmetric access to information, skewed power dynamics, and education.

Access to information is incredibly unequal in Singapore, where there is no freedom of information legislation. Data is dispensed according to what the state is willing to share, which can make things difficult for journalists, researchers, academics and ordinary citizens alike. It’s also a common experience for journalists to make media enquiries and receive no answer, or boilerplate responses that don’t really address the issue.

Last year independent news site The Online Citizen came under fire from Shanmugam, who accused it of deliberately spreading falsehoods in relation to the case of a boy who committed suicide after being questioned by the police. In its response, The Online Citizen pointed out that they had reached out to the police and other relevant authorities to request their input, yet had received no reply.

If the authorities ignore efforts to engage them or present them with the opportunity to have their say, it’s disingenuous to later turn around and cry fake news or accuse the other party of having acted in bad faith. When we add the power of prosecution and repercussions on their side, we end up with a situation where the press shies away from raising pertinent issues without official comment, thus allowing the government to shut down any story they don’t want told by simply refusing to comment (while reserving the right to accuse the journalist or publication of malice later). This further undermines the principles of openness, transparency and accountability within the country, preventing citizens from being informed and participating openly in discussions on matters of national importance. It’s ultimately yet another form of censorship.

Even with more laws passed, the fact also remains that not everyone gets to cry “fake news,” or commence costly and burdensome legal proceedings. It would also be naïve to imagine that falsehoods only go in one direction: against the government. Opposition politicians, activists and other critics of the establishment are also constantly made the subject of rumours, insinuations, speculations and complete fabrications.

During the 2015 general election, whisper campaigns took off on WhatsApp, making false claims such as how voting for the opposition Worker’s Party would “open the door to LGBT rights.” There are forum threads and anonymous blogs dedicated to making false claims about members of Singaporean civil society. And none of this is new, because examples can be found in Singapore’s history: just think about the government’s press statements in 1987 about the so-called “Marxist Conspiracy,” claiming that the social workers, activists and lawyers arrested had been plotting to overthrow the state. These claims have since been strongly rebutted by the former detainees and widely discredited, but continue to exist on government websites. It’s an example of how, when thinking about fake news, we should always remember that even the powerful can stoop that low when it suits them.

Yet not everyone will have the ability to pursue these cases of deliberate misinformation; it is more likely than not that only the government will have the power and resources to go after content they deem to be fake news.

Falsehoods and hoaxes are harmful and can derail or poison important discussions, but we shouldn’t immediately resort to the kneejerk reaction of legislation and criminalization. In fact, implementing even more controls can actually be counterproductive, especially in a context like Singapore where the ruling party already has so much power and the mainstream media is widely considered to be a government mouthpiece.

Instead of fostering trust in public institutions or building up citizens’ media literacy and analytical skills, introducing more laws and continuing to restrict press freedom can end up encouraging more cynicism and distrust. And it is precisely when people feel that the mainstream media isn’t telling them everything, and that the government is only allowing them to “read the right thing”, that the appeal of alternative sources grows, even when those sources are anonymous or lacking in credibility.

If we want to guard ourselves against fake news, we’re going to have to do more to boost our bullshit detectors. That can’t be achieved by increasing criminalization and legal action; it needs to happen through education, openness and engagement. Information needs to be accessible, and institutions accountable, so we don’t create the knowledge vacuum in which falsehoods thrive.

Editor: Edward White

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