25 January 2018

Are Fake News laws inevitable in Singapore?

Civil society activists in Singapore will no doubt claim that legislation against fake news is inevitable and imminent, that it is part of the authoritarian government's general clampdown on the online media.

In terms of Westminster procedure, Singapore's inevitable march towards fake news laws is in its infancy. Cabinet signals interest and concern on an issue in a Green Paper, a Select Committee is convened. That's where we are at now. Public hearings need to be convened, a committee report drafted and presented in parliament, the cabinet's response to its recommendations and findings presented in another parliament session, a White Paper drafted by the cabinet, potentially more public hearings convened for feedback, the White Paper debated in parliament, a Bill drafted and read twice before passing into law. That is how much more needs to be done.

Yet given how Singapore puts its own spin on Westminster procedure, our hysterical activists might well be right.

Legislative efficiency or rush to legislation in Singapore?

A distinctive feature of Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP) government through the administrations of Lee, Goh, and Lee has been hyper-efficient legislation.

The authoritarian leadership model exercised by all three prime ministers means that policy-making is a power monopolised by the prime minister and his cabinet. Any meaningful policy scrutiny and debate takes place within the cabinet. The cabinet has already agreed upon and pre-approved what is presented to parliament, the cabinet has already set the parameters of discussion to guide both the man in the street and experts to agree with what it presents in a public consultation. That is to say: In Singapore, the cabinet legislates, parliament rubberstamps, and the public offers its consent in non-consultative consultations.

Perhaps unique to Lee Hsien Loong's administration is the rush to legislation, with accelerated timelines between the moment an idea is mooted in parliament to its realisation as legislation. We've seen this alacrity last in the fundamentally flawed racially reserved elected presidency law.

On the issue of fake news, we have an apples-to-apples Westminister parliament comparison, in the form of the UK's fake news inquiry. The current phase of the UK inquiry began on 30 January this year, with submissions closing on 3 March. In fact, UK public consultation on fake news had already begun in October 2017 for the Internet Safety Green Paper. If the UK's Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport does decide that it has had enough public feedback by the end of the current phase, the UK would have had 6 months of public feedback, consultation, and debate. In contrast, efficient Singapore just requires a little over 6 weeks for the general public and experts to get their thoughts in order, conduct or more likely search for suitable research to verify their opinions on the matter, and present all that to the committee.

One must either conclude from this timeline of events that Singaporeans are either geniuses or that questions have been answered, doubts cleared, and decisions made for them in advance. And that whatever recommendations the cabinet does adopt, adapt, ignore from the committee report or devise on its own, similarly questions have been answered, doubts cleared, and decisions made for Singaporeans in advance for the cabinet White Paper. And if there is no second round of public consultation when the cabinet releases its White Paper, one must conclude that Singaporeans are also clairvoyants capable of giving feedback during the Green Paper consultation for a White Paper that shouldn't exist yet.

What has the Select Committee been tasked to find out, and tasked to ignore?

The more hysterical activists in Singapore may claim that blinkers have been soldered to the heads of the select committee, limiting and biasing their terms of reference so that they are bound by duty to ignore or dismiss criticisms of fake news, as defined by the Green Paper.

It should be noted how the Singapore committee's scope of inquiry seems to couch fake news is a far more alarmist tone compared to the UK committee's scope of inquiry. One instructs the committee to report on the motivations of foreign entities spreading falsehoods online and the consequences of fake news on our institutions and democratic processes, the other empowers the committee to seek public feedback on whether people of different ages, genders, races, social backgrounds use and respond to fake news differently. One defines fake news as deliberate online falsehoods, the other asks if we should contextualise fake news with biased commentary, propaganda, and lies that already exist in the polity.

We at Illusio argue that whether there is a nefarious plan to demonise the issue has yet to be proven; let the general public and experts present certain key arguments to the committee, and watch the committee's reaction in their eventual report to parliament.

What key criticisms are there of fake news? What kind of feedback would the cabinet not want the committee to consider and recommend?

Our previous post presents a variety of different theories of communication, linguistics, and sociology that are in agreement that fake news is more likely than not, a fake category. It is a form of communication like the manufactured consensus, spin, propaganda, partisan politics, and urban legends already employed in the mainstream media, governance, politics, and society at large, relies on outright fabrications, half-truths, and biased interpretations. Experts to the UK public consultation have made the same point, and also noted that the denunciation of "fake news" is really a rhetorical strategy that is employed in partisan debate and politics to discredit and demonise propaganda and spin one disagrees with. Others have pointed out that "fake news" is a phenomenon of online electoral campaigning and should be regulated as such by campaign finance laws and media advertising regulations.

Does the cabinet have the power to define fake news into a reality, even if experts who study communications, politics, journalism are in broad consensus that fake news is fake? Will the committee be forced to reject reasonable, credible, empirical and theoretical challenges to the government's definition of fake news?

While the UK Green Paper cites research suggesting that children and young people are not savvy enough to distinguish between fabrications and actual news, the Singapore Green Paper presents a lengthy list of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign under the section titled "Impact of online falsehoods". The cabinet has made a categorical error, presenting the evidence of fake news as the impact of fake news, seemingly confident that this error can be ignored if it shouts loudly about security concerns and foreign subversion. If, as the Green Paper sets out, an extraordinary threat exists, a competent and intellectually honest government would not confuse identifying the threat with stating its real impact

Instead, a competent and intellectually honest cabinet would make a call for public submissions on the following questions, instead of playing up an unproven security and democratic threat:

i. Is there a quantifiable effect of fake news on the US election outcome? How many percentage points, votes, states did the operation swing?
ii. Analysing the content, framing, spread, and readership patterns, how different was this campaign of online falsehoods from the online falsehoods observed in previous US elections?
iii. How different were these online falsehoods from the usual smear campaigns, political urban legends, partisan news and horse-race reporting?
iv. How different is this alleged Russian propaganda operation compared to other reported for-profit political click-farms and fake news farms operating in eastern Europe, and other online misinformation campaigns in Brazil?

Will the committee be forced to reject studies on the impact of fake news, because the cabinet has defined impact of fake news as merely evidence of fake news?

Fake news, or just the usual election cycle negative campaign ad?
What should the Select Committee be looking at instead?

I. Critically examine fake news, ask for real evidence from real studies. If not, conclude the case of fake news is not proven

a. Empirically, what sets fake news apart from politics as usual by media, government, parties, citizens?
b. What are the institutional, structural contexts for the success of fake news in America?
c. Is fake news dangerous because it is profitable? Or because there appeared to be a foreign hand guiding it?
d. If fake news is shared by people who don't believe that it's true but only to signal political and ideological difference and belonging, should it be deemed a threat?

II. Legislate for Singapore, not for America

a. What is the structure of the media landscape and readership in Singapore?
b. Does Singapore's media structure and consumption patterns facilitate a fake news campaign? What sort of fake news have Singaporeans shared online in the past 10 years?
c. Looking at past elections in Singapore, have the mainstream and online media, the government, political parties, and different groups of citizens engaged in fake news, propaganda, manufactured consensus, and negative or inflammatory political campaigns?
d. How successful were these? How dangerous were these to democracy, or were they part of normal democratic expression?

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