26 February 2018

What is a reasonable response to the fake news problem?

The window for public submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee on fake news shutters on 28 February 2018 in Singapore. We at Illusio have decided not to make a submission to the committee. What we have written on the matter is intended a resource for the public at large, legislators in parliament, media practitioners and consumers, and legal and communications researchers, specifically on the knowledge gaps that the committee is expected to acknowledge, address, and recommend further research on before it authors a White Paper.

There may be unknown unknowns, but have we dealt with all the known unknowns of fake news?

No shooting in the dark, please!

In the previous post, we listed several research questions the committee could and should ask from the lobby groups, academics, and legal scholars presenting submissions. These should not be seen as roadblocks to legislation, but necessary stations and way-points to produce a legislation that is realistic and practical. In contrast, a likely negative outcome resulting from a rush to legislate would instead be far more all-encompassing and less targeted, and result in the stifling of civic participation online and technological innovation in social media.

Thus the parliamentary committee should draw on, or commission studies on:

i. The conceptual definition/misdefinition of fake news vs naturally occurring government propaganda, political campaigning, manufactured consensus by the media, and urban legends and rumourmongering by the public; (i.e. "How is fake news different")

ii. The quantified impact of fake news on elections and public trust; (i.e. "How is fake news a threat")

iii. The type of political articles Singaporeans share online;

iv. The type of fake news Singaporeans share online; and

v. Whether sharing articles online is a function of perceived news or perceived social belonging.

The limits to legislation

We at Illusio believe that given the problematic conceptualising, overstating, and failure to prove the impact of fake news and hence the threat it poses to "democracy" and the social fabric, in the further absence of evidence of the threat from fake news, there should be no new legislation. That does not mean that we advocate doing nothing.

Let us suppose that the real issue is domestic security and foreign interference. Against a sustained campaign from a hostile state, there are existing sedition, press registration, takedown, political campaigning and funding laws which empower Singapore's ministers to make emergency decisions at their discretion, or even declare a state of Emergency.

That's not to mention that in Singapore, a general election lasts just two weeks from the beginning of hustings to polling while professional pollsters tell us that our electorate generally has made up its mind more than a month before polling. A government that calls a snap election in the middle of a sustained campaign against it deserves to lose power.

What if the real issue is structural, and embedded in how social media is organised? Then perhaps we should look at changing the way the industry works? But that's what the industry is already doing. While Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media websites are in the middle of changing their posting policies, feed algorithms, and advertising policies, should a government interfere with the self-regulation of industry standards, codes of conduct?

What if we have the problem backwards? What if instead of fake news causing distrust and polarisation, fake news can only be a threat because of a high level of distrust and polarisation? Traditionally, political scientists and sociologists who study urban legends, mythology, and folklore agree that these phenomena are a reflection of low levels of trust in society, a weakened civil society, or a weakening public space.

Then the committee could perhaps recommend programmes that strengthen civil society in Singapore. We shouldn't expect everyone to agree with a single point of view, compel people to make only fact-based statements, or to read only 100% factual articles. Instead, a plural society like Singapore should invest in building and encouraging habits of trust, confidence, and engagement between disparate and contentious communities, instead of allowing them to build echo chambers and silo bunkers offline as well as online.

Yes, media literacy is important. Fostering habits of fact-checking is important. More important is to expose people to different and multiple worldviews, some of which can be equally valid and others less credible. But what is most important is people learning how to live with each other, especially with those they don't agree.

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