Fake news is a ‘forever’ problem that governments must grapple with

By Yong Shu Chiang

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University, who has observed disinformation in Singapore, tells GovInsider what governments can do with the modern scourge of fake news and falsehoods, even if it feels like a losing battle.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth, as the saying goes.


Eugene Tan, who is Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University, has observed the issue of disinformation and “weaponised falsehoods” in Singapore.


In 2018, he wrote a commentary titled “Building an informed citizenry in the battle against disinformation”, about why the public is the first line of defence against disinformation, which is the deliberate intent to mislead with false information.


Speaking with GovInsider, he said that the rise of disinformation and misinformation, or the spread of falsehoods without any intent to mislead, is “a problem that will now be forever with us.”


He called it a consequence of the world, for the large part, now living virtually and how public institutions in many parts of the world have lost trust.


“It’s a very odd situation, as misinformation rooted in internal or external sociopolitical issues can lead to crises that can undermine governments, can cripple societies, and disinformation is recognised now as a form of warfare,” he says.


For some countries, however, there is a perceived inability to deal with the spread of falsehoods resolutely.


“Many, if not most, countries feel rather helpless, as they don’t have the necessary tools, such as laws or digital infrastructure, to deal with it.


“We don’t have this situation when we talk about military threats, and it’s actually quite worrying. And this whole area is very much whack-a-mole,” he adds, referring to how prevalent and persistent falsehoods can be.

Targeted legislation difficult for some countries


In many respects, Singapore is an exception, Prof Tan says, as it has two main laws, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica), that try to deal with misinformation and disinformation.


“Different countries have different tolerance for freedom of speech. In many liberal democratic countries, public discourse can take place with little fear, with the belief that good speech can chase out bad speech, and that facts will chase away falsehoods.”


For Prof Tan, freedom of speech being close to sacrosanct explains why some countries find it difficult to come up with targeted legislation, because it would be seen as a transgression against such freedom.


In these countries, the authorities see legislation as untenable and believe they would not be able to successfully quash misinformation and disinformation in the courts, or the lawmakers may feel that they would not be able to secure political buy-in.


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The speed of falsehoods


Falsehoods travel faster than truth, and by virtue of being emotive, they tend to have a firmer hold on people’s perceptions. According to one study, fake news can travel up to 10 times faster than the truth.


Even POFMA directions, which attempt to correct falsehoods, are not a “complete remedy” says Prof Tan.


“POFMA and Fica are not antidotes – they won’t be able to reinstate the status quo – but they seek to mitigate whatever damage or harmful consequences may arise,” he says.


“And how many people will actually get to read or bother to read and know the other side of the story, even if it is the truth?”


Despite this, he believes that dealing with falsehoods is a necessity and can help governments engage with more “fair-minded” individuals. The longer-term goal is to ensure that societies, which will have its share of extremists, has a broad base of such fair-minded people.

The need for media literacy


While the Internet has democratised access to information, it has also led to an erosion of trust in public institutions around the world, whereby government bodies and traditional media are no longer seen as unimpeachable.


Many countries, including Singapore, have debated the need to promote media literacy, such that people can be more discerning in consuming news and information, and be less susceptible to falsehoods.


This seems to be a losing battle, says Prof Tan, but trying to establish, maintain or enhance more trusted sources of information in a country can help.


“People are all seeking their own sources of truth now,” Prof Tan says. “But if fair-minded people want to find the truth, or access a countervailing view, at least give them some confidence that they have sources they can turn to.”


He cites the Israel-Hamas as an example of how tensions can be exported, and how sensitivities can extend beyond the communities with strong ties to the region.


Views on such hot-button issues are increasingly polarised, he notes, and even those trying to be neutral or objective on this or other issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, can be seen as being partial one way or another.

A losing battle, but needs must


Returning to his analogy of whack-a-mole, and how fighting falsehoods can feel like a losing battle, Prof Tan advises governments not to throw in the towel, and instead focus on a few sound strategies to approach fake news.


One, enact laws to correct falsehoods, where possible, such that there would be sources of truth that may still engender trust among a certain fair-minded group of people.


“I think, in the end, we still need to have laws, particularly, to deal with clear and present dangers,” he says.


Two, continue to engage with and nurture a middle ground in society, such that there is a broad base of fair-minded individuals who would not give in to the “louder voices” in society.


“Once this middle ground shrinks, then it becomes a question of the louder voice being mightier, and it’s actually a very scary reality.”


Lastly, countries can continue to share ideas, even as cross-border collaboration to stem the flow of misinformation or disinformation remains difficult to coordinate.


“I think what we can do really is to try and share ideas, of what strategies work for one country, and how they may work for another,” says Prof Tan. “Maybe countries can also work together to ensure there is a platform of commonly accepted facts.”


The hope is that these facts, told often enough, will be seen as the truth.


Also read: How governments can get a pulse of the people amidst trends and crises

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