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Singapore media suggest fact checking strategy against fake news



SINGAPORE: The two major local media organisations advocated fact checking as a countermeasure against the trend of fake news online as they appeared at hearings for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs) on Friday (Mar 23).
In a written submission to the special parliamentary panel, senior editors from Channel NewsAsia (CNA) recommended the establishment of an independent, transparent fact checking “council, committee or body” to identify, assess and react to DOFs quickly.
Depending on the falsehood’s scale and platform of conveyance, the council should recommend to the appropriate enforcement agency appropriate remedial actions. These include compulsory takedowns, corrections issued to platforms, ordered clarifications by the source and public education efforts aimed at addressing specific DOFs, said CNA.
“The council should be appointed by and accountable to Parliament,” it added. "As a crucial tool of public trust, the work, findings and recommendations of the council must also be open to public scrutiny.”
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which publishes newspapers like The Straits Times, largely echoed similar points in its suggestion of a “full-time fact checking alliance”.
But the two companies had different suggestions about the makeup of a proposed fact checking body. SPH said it should comprise the likes of media players and industry practitioners, with representatives from Government bodies and commercial entities allowed to participate.
AdvertisementAdvertisement“SPH is open to participating in such an alliance, and/or to work with other media organisations to form this coalition,” it added.
CNA, on the other hand, said the body should include academia, non-governmental organisations, civil society, the legal community and other social groups representative of Singapore society.
“It is proposed that the body established in Singapore not include representatives of the mainstream media,” CNA’s editors wrote. “It is important that in conducting its work, the fact checking body must also be able to independently assess news and information, including that which is published by the mainstream media.”
CNA and SPH also each suggested at least three minimum criteria for authorities to take into account when assessing online falsehoods.
For CNA, the content must be proven to be false - that is, predicated on a fabrication and not based on fact. The content must also reside online on websites, blogs, social media posts, plan text messages and “ephemeral” platforms like Snapchat, among others. The content must have been created and circulated deliberately, as opposed to a genuine inadvertent error.
It must have had the intent, said CNA, to achieve any of the following: Influence democratic processes; compromise national security; undermine the judiciary; affect racial or religious harmony or manipulate financial and economic outcomes.
CNA also added that “there should be thresholds with a combination of metrics to determine reach and frequency to decide what a DOF is, and whether and how to address it”.

SPH’s proposed “tests” for online falsehoods were along the same lines of intent, significance and virality or reach. It also suggested excluding cases of genuine errors later corrected, reports marked as satire or parody, and false information spread by individuals wanting to help or warn loved ones.
The possible restriction of free speech was additionally raised as a “key concern” for SPH. “Public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest,” it wrote.
“Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law.”
The media outlets also outlined the roles they could play in battling online misinformation. CNA said it would have a duty to “extensively and appropriately” report on DOFs identified by the proposed fact-checking body.
“Such reporting by the mainstream media is likely to give the DOF (even if debunked) greater reach and visibility. This is unavoidable, but necessary,” it said.
A second and “long-term” role is to raise public awareness of the dangers of DOFs.
“Channel NewsAsia will continue to be an accurate, credible and trusted source of news and information,” the editors wrote. “Capabilities and newsrooms must continue to be strengthened, to address the problem of DOFs … via high-quality journalism, fact-checking and in-depth reporting.”
“Through its news platforms, Channel NewsAsia will, as part of its reporting ... and where appropriate, independently report on deliberate disinformation as part of regular news coverage.”
CNA also said it hoped to work with social media and search engines.

SPH said mainstream media played a “critical” role as “honest brokers” to help readers distinguish between credible news and misleading or false reports.
“The consumers of news content, i.e. the audience, must also see the need for and support the continued existence of a responsible mainstream media in Singapore,” it added.
SPH also spoke of the need for legislation - either new or amended, and for the likes of social media channels and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and more.
The onus must be put on them, said SPH, “to take responsibility for the content they choose to publish and promote”.
“They should be required to act faster when falsehoods spread on their platforms, and to disclose the identities of creators of deliberate falsehoods,” it added.
“Any legislation … should require social networks and media websites with a significant reach to establish a monitoring or complaints mechanism that will allow them to be swiftly alerted to fake, offending or otherwise prohibited content. They should then be required to remove such content within a short but reasonable timeframe, and be subjected to an impactful fine for any failure to do so.”
SPH then pointed out that existing laws give authorities “some scope” to tackle online falsehoods, but are “mostly limited” to content creators and providers rather than distributors such as social networks.
It emphasised that legislation should not lead to further restrictions on “constructive” public discourse or “reputable” content creators such as news media.
Any new legislation should also clarify issues such as affording the chance to appeal allegations of fake news, said SPH, and whether the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor or accused.

Speaking at the public hearing, Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times, said that the Government "should have a care in applying any legislation".
"The news gathering process is not a neat and tidy one," he explained.
"Information doesn't come to us in a completely nicely packaged form. It often comes in bits and pieces ... and it's incumbent on our journalists and editors to go out there and check and verify and pull the strands together and make interpretations and judgments. In the process, sometimes we get a complete picture, but sometimes our assumptions may not be completely correct.
"I worry the legislation you have in mind will be so broad and sweeping it could impinge on our ability to do what we do, day to day," he said. "There's also the possibility of differences in interpretation and opinion which could then be labelled as DOFs - which could impact the willingness and readiness of members of the public to share information with us."

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