20 March 2018

Are Singapore's fake news public hearings a waste of time?

Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have begun hearing testimonies from the public.

It is tempting to dismiss the proceedings as a prelude to new laws against free speech online. But it is more profitable to suss out the complexities, competing agendas, inconsistencies, and blind spots that arise from select committee hearings even as the committee balances its fact-finding function with its practical role in parliamentary decision-making and consensus-building.

In other words, ignoring a select committee's public hearings is an indicator of political illiteracy.

Just what can we learn from the first week of the fake news public hearings, if we paid attention?

Decoding the proceedings

i. The UK select committee on fake news organises hearings as and when submissions are received. The public hearings in Singapore have been scheduled to hear in its first week group establishment academics and think-tanks.

ii. The UK select committee publishes written submissions way ahead and independently of public hearings. Singapore's select committee only publishes written submissions on the day of the public hearing, only if the submission results in an invitation for a hearing by the panel.

iii. The UK select committee process results in a full transcript of the hearings on the parliament website. The Singapore committee releases no transcripts of the hearings, only video excerpts and a summary of the hearings of the day.

iv. Two private hearings were conducted by the Singapore select committee on 16 March, ostensibly for reasons of national security and international relations. Yet the next day, Singapore's main newspapers published reports of these "private hearings", and the summary for hearings that day included sections identifying the witnesses and condensing their testimony. To the extent that one could well identify the countries highlighted by these experts.

You don't need a decoder to figure out the identity of countries X and Y.
So much for national security and international relations?
This is in stark contrast to the UK select committee procedure. When private hearings are actually conducted in secret, the details are classified. Australian procedure allows select committees to make any part or all of a private hearing open to Parliament, but only after informing the witness and after a transcript of the hearing is verified by the witness. In both cases, any unauthorised publication of the details of a private hearing is ordinarily understood to be in Contempt of Parliament.

Taken singly, each point is no cause for concern. Taken together, they may indicate a communication problem: "In the past, policymakers found it easier to hear from a select group of sources: the usual (safe) suspects". Did the select committee schedule its hearings to front-load the first week of testimony and resulting media reports with the usual suspects, whose testimony would be most favourable to the intentions of the authors of the Green Paper? Did parliament coordinate with the mainstream press on the reports of the daily public hearings?

Decoding the witnesses

No consensus on the basics of fake news

The expert witnesses hail roughly from three different sectors of the political economy: the domestic policy experts from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), the international relations experts from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), and members from security-related foreign think tanks.

Think tanks tanked the consensus ship!
News media reported that NUS researchers declared the potentially broad concept of fake news to be unproblematic and distinguishable from "rumours, parodies, satire, hoaxes, conspiracy theories and poor reporting". Security experts may have characterised Russian fake news in Ukraine as purely disinformation and falsehoods, but ended up using the words "propaganda" and "narratives".

Whether fake news is a fake concept is still up in the air, as evidenced by the Straits Times running a piece by Jonathan Eyal which lumps fake news together with propaganda, spin, political campaigning. Eyal and I may have had our differences but we do agree that fake news is no different from existing tools of politics, advertising, and advocacy.

What the committee members could've done but missed:

i. Schedule the first week of testimony to address and interrogate the issue of definition in depth instead of jumping directly into case studies

ii. Limit the witnesses so that the case studies presented to the committee and to the public (via state media) are not over-represented by the Russian war against Ukraine

iii. Summon emissaries from the top social networks used by Singaporeans to give testimony on the fake news threat, and line them up for the first week of public hearings because direct first-hand evidence needs to be heard first. You know, just like what credible parliamentary committees on fake news are doing?

Can fake news be understood divorced of social and political context?

Blinkers, blinkers everywhere!
The committee directed all witnesses to leave out the social and political context of their case studies, believing that this would direct discussions on the potential impact and threat of fake news to Singapore. That is pure folly. Case studies are meant to be contextualised in order to extrapolate and identify universal trends to draw specific and tailored lessons.

In talking about how fake news figured in the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there are some contextual considerations that the committee either missed, or blinded itself to. Ignoring the contexts will no doubt amplify the real threat and capacity of fake news - a happy state of affairs for any Ukrainian security expert in a think tank dependent on funding by George Soros and the UK government, or say a legislator intent on pushing through new legislation by overplaying security threats.

i. Fake news was merely one of the tools employed in the Ukrainian crisis. It was a support tool for an invasion, one tool in many in a multifront war. Nowhere did the security experts present evidence that fake news can be a sole tool to destablise a state, or whatever the Green Paper suggested.

iii. The Ukrainian crisis was one born out of geopolitics - namely Ukraine's (failed) balancing act between Nato and the Russian Federation over the past 2 decades, exacerbated by winner-takes-all, corrupt politics. Nowhere did the security experts present evidence that fake news can create a crisis out of thin air.

iv. Did Russian fake news create disunity between the Ukrainian and Russian populations in Ukraine? What were the already existing political differences before the Ukrainian crisis and the start of Russia's "fake news campaign"?

v. Does fake news succeed because it propagates narratives that already exist in the wild or is in line with what already exists, or is fake news a tool of mind control that brainwashes people to believe in new, radical narratives?

Foreign governments don't care about backlash or effectiveness of fake news laws?

Perhaps the most telling testimony came from the head of Singapore's national security think tank. Yes, he has been in contact with European governments and EU level efforts to legislate fake news. Yes, there are rumblings on the ground in Europe that fake news laws may be too wide, have unintended consequences, are undemocratic, may be misused or abused, and may not even work to combat the perceived problem of fake news. But look, the chief says, the Eurocrats know all this and they don't care. It's the Russians, and the threat their fake news pose against democracy is reason enough! And neither should we, the insinuation is made if you can hear the dog whistle.

Them's fighting words!
Perhaps the most startling part of Dr Jayakumar's testimony comes from his insistence that a hostile fake news campaign can come like a thief in a night. He claims a hostile state may wage "information warfare well in advance of any real-world conflict. By the time a target state detects it, communal resilience may have already started to fray".

A politically illiterate citizen would be forgiven for saying that state actors behave like the proverbial madman who strikes out randomly and without warning. Credible international relations experts are more likely to state that states have interests, and their actions - covert or otherwise, friendly diplomatic lobbying or hostile military incursions - are reflective of deep long-term strategic interests (aka motives) and capabilities (aka means), which means that Singapore's leaders just need to be have a non-zero political IQ to be on guard against a hostile foreign fake news campaign, because you can see one coming from a mile off (unless you're blind).

But that's not the worst written testimony that the fake news committee has received. We'll talk about that one next. And it's actually not written by a member of the establishment.

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