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What To Do About 'Fake News'?
SINGAPORE (June 27, 2017) – Everybody worries about the “fake news” phenomenon, but what can actually be done about it? A panel representing public policymakers, traditional media, tech companies, and academia examined options for combating such disinformation at this week’s East-West Center International Media Conference in Singapore. (View video
of the panel.) The conference was co-hosted by EWC, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Singapore Management University.
Professor Cherian George of the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University began the discussion by emphasizing that the very concept of “fake news” can be extremely dangerous if the public becomes cynical about all news sources or even about the reliability of information and reason in general. Singapore Straits Times
Editor Warren Fernandez observed that a key aspect of the definition of “fake news” is the intention to spread misinformation. It must be clearly distinguished from comedy, satire, analysis, opinion, and commentary, he said.
Dr. Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Singapore’s Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Communications and Information added that all stakeholders bear a personal responsibility for the dissemination of truthful information, including governments, academics, the traditional press, social platforms, and private citizens.
Since a great deal of “fake news” is disseminated on social platforms, Facebook’s head of public policy in Southeast Asia, Alvin Tan, described how the social media giant is trying to reduce intentional misinformation by closing bogus accounts, blocking obvious offensive content such as pornography and terrorism, and expanding third-party fact-checking. Facebook also needs to educate users to identify false accounts and disinformation themselves, he said, and to make better use of the filters that the software provides.
Panel moderator Torben Stephan, director of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Media Programme Asia asked whether it would be possible to implement international standards for news content rather than asking providers such as Facebook to follow separate standards in more than 200 countries around the world. Minister Puthucheary responded that each country has its own inflammatory issues, values, and standards of propriety, and it would be impossible to dictate a single definition of inappropriate content for the entire world. For example, he said, Germany has a law against media content that denies the holocaust, but other countries do not.
Puthucheary stressed that Facebook and other social media platforms have the technical capacity to identify and delete inappropriate content on a country-by-country basis, and Tan responded that Facebook is currently dedicating considerable resources to this issue. Prof. George countered that Facebook appears to be paying attention to fact-checking and blocking disinformation in lucrative markets such as Germany, but what about smaller markets like Myanmar? Tan stressed that Facebook is getting to know the needs of each national market better by investing in additional staff.
Puthucheary is a member of the Singapore government’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which is currently preparing a report that will provide the basis for new legislation designed to control the dissemination of “fake news” in Singapore. However, George said that government action might not be the best approach, because governments are often the chief culprits. Legislation to control “fake news” in other Asian countries appears to be targeting critics of the government, he said.
Puthucheary responded that the Singapore government is approaching the issue cautiously, seeking wide input over more than a year. The goal is to tailor a narrowly focused law, he said, with proportionate penalties that will address only the most egregious cases and increase the space for legitimate discourse, including satire and divergent opinions.
The panel members agreed that the ultimate defense against “fake news” is a public with skeptical, inquiring minds. With this aim, The Straits Times has initiated a service to provide schoolteachers with news content that will provoke classroom discussion, Fernandez said. Puthucheary added that the Singapore government has recently rolled out a new school curriculum to “help students engage with contemporary issues using the news of the day as the substrate for developing skills of media literacy and critical thinking.”
Although the amount of “fake news” appears to be increasing, primarily through social media platforms, at least the public appears to be waking up to the problem. George pointed out that if American policymakers had been less susceptible to “fake news” in 2003, perhaps they would not have accepted the administration’s claim that the Iraqis possessed weapons of mass destruction, and many thousands of lives might have been saved. He predicted that intelligent solutions to the problem of “fake news” will emerge in the next few years.
The EAST-WEST CENTER promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options