What to do about fake news?

The scourge of fake news is a rather recent phenomenon that has serious ramifications for governance and the general well-being of citizens. Misinformation spread online through social media channels and Whatsapp are usually malicious in nature, calculated to undermined trust in the media and government, spread fear and panic, and sometimes simply to make money by garnering eyeballs. In some instances, fake news can even endanger lives.

What is the definition of fake news?

There is no universally accepted definition and there are some concerns that governments or politicians may use the term loosely to label any unfavourable news as fake news. Wikipedia defines fake news as a type of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.

Minister for Law K Shanmugam took a shot at providing some clarity on this hot potato at the “Keep It Real: Truth and Trust in the Media” Forum on 19 June 2017. Clearly, fake news is not just confined to Singapore as he listed many overseas examples and noted how the EU, Germany, Israel and the UK are all studying ways to stem the flow of fake news.

Here is a summary of salient points made in Mr Shanmugam’s speech:

  • Misinformation aka fake news is an easy and effective way to advance a range of agendas.
  • Singapore is an open country that would be of particular interest to a number of countries who will want to influence specific racial, social or religious groups using misinformation
  • Misinformation can be used to spread hate, including by terrorists for their own ends and by others wanting to divide society, like those behind the fake video “London Muslims celebrate terror attack”, posted after the 2015 November attacks in Paris.
  • Misinformation can be used to make money. Remember The Real Singapore and their fabricated stories?
  • Sometimes, media inadvertently publish a wrong story where they have to take it down and publish an apology. However, the damage would have already been done.
  • The Singapore Government has been considering ways of dealing with the problem of fake news.
  • Mr Shanmugam is personally convinced legislation is essential. But society, the media and tech companies have important roles to play too.

In all this discussion about fake news, I think personal responsibility has to be emphasised. For goodness’ sake, please verify information before you pass it on. How many of us are guilty of not even reading articles on Facebook before liking them or even sharing them? Or sending on hoax information via Whatsapp? We can all do our part not to contribute towards the spread of fake news. Please take a moment to think about the veracity of the article before you blindly forward to your entire contact list.

The fate of truth in a post-truth world may just lie in your hands.