Article originally written on April 4, 2019
In the startup world, we are familiar with the idea of creating a solution in need of a problem. We are also familiar with the idea of our solution creating a brand new problem.
This week, the Singapore government seems to be enthusiastically passing a fake news law that creates more issues than solutions.
The new law gives immense powers to individual Ministers and has led to widespread concern within Singapore (no, it’s not just international folks projecting their ideals onto the city).
Ministers can individually flag “fake news”, where it will then be arbitrated in court — a ridiculously idealistic scenario with no basis in how media works. Furthermore, it gives expediated rights to request corrections or removals and makes it nearly impossible for media to fight back in a timely manner.
Finally, the law applies to all stories about Singapore, whether or not it originated in the city-state.
It is important to mention that Singapore does not have free speech protections and never has shown any intention of embracing dissent. This new law does not particularly change anything legally, but rather it speeds up the process — and creates a situation where the article comes down first, and then is adjudicated later.
The logic is the same as the procedure behind nuclear weapons: the Executive gets carte-blanche decision-making powers because the situation moves too fast for traditional government avenues. It’s fair enough. A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has put on its trousers.
The problem comes in the grey areas. It tilts the legal power so heavily in one direction that the process is no longer a fight for truth but just plain ol’ censorship.
What has been fascinating about the roll-out of the law is the accompanying PR blitz. We regular folk here in Singapore have been inundated with articles explaining why this is necessary — usually quoting a politician with skin in the game. It almost feels as if the government knows this is a terrible law but is trying to convince itself, and thus the constituents, otherwise.
The scary part is that law is not government policy. It will be around a lot longer than the Ministers who pass it and while this crop of lawmakers may have benevolent intentions, it is written in such a manner that it can be easily abused by a rogue Minister or a new regime with less altruistic intentions.
As pointed out in a fantastic explainer written by Cherian George, the law provides an avenue for the government to leverage pedantic errors or differences in perception to request a full takedown.
The law provides an avenue — the courts — for a journalist to challenge the takedown request, but that is an unrealistic solution. Journalists have deliberately chosen a life of low-pay and a lot of media companies can’t afford the legal fees necessary to take a fake news case to the High Court.
If the journalist loses a case they could be fined S$20,000 (US$14,800) and face a year in jail.
It also puts responsibility on tech companies like Twitter and Facebook to clamp down on fake news with fines up to S$1 million (US$740,000).
The law is wilfully placing faith in companies that have failed miserably in markets that are much more important to their bottom line. If Facebook can’t figure out fake news in America, there is no chance it will do so in Singapore.
Alan Soon, of Splice Media, pointed out on Twitter, that the law transforms tech companies into agents of government policy. It is a valid point, but as someone who watches tech closely, the reality more likely to be like the television show “Veep” whereby failures in corporate policy are defined more by incompetence than malevolence.
The problem nobody is talking about is self-censorship, a much more serious issue than fake news. Fundamentally, when, not if, this bill passes, it is unlikely to change much of what the public sees. What it will change is what the public does not see.
Self-censorship, more than fake news, is a real problem across the globe. It is a means for authoritarian entities (often corporate) to wilfully keep their people ignorant in an effort to achieve a goal (be it power, money or fame). Even in countries that support free speech, financial and political incentives often result in stories being killed.
Fake news, on the other hand, is a peculiarity of our times; just like penny presses in the 18th century, Yellow Journalism in the late 19th century and the rise of partisan political news at the end of the 20th century.
The public should ask itself how many stories will never threaten this law because they were killed long before they even had a chance. In a corporate media structure like SPH or Mediacorp, that number is going to be higher than we’d care to admit.
Take, fore example, the debacle around 38 Oxley Road. How would that have been handled if some intrepid reporter had the scoop instead of a Singaporean princeling? Would Mediacorp or SPH really have published that story? Maybe I am cynical, but I seriously doubt it.
As said Tim Harford in his article,“Why there is no need to panic about Fake News”:
“It is all too easy to turn legitimate concerns about false information into a situation where the government decides what can be said and who can say it. We need to be careful that the cure is not worse than the disease”
Plus, Singapore does not have a fake news problem. This is exemplified by the necessity to cite foreign cases and one (ONE!) domestic case of an article that went mildly viral and had zero actual impact on society.
(If I am going to be a real jerk about it, 1,716 shares, 754 reactions and 157 comments does not qualify for the word “viral”).
Again, a solution in search for a problem. At this point, the government might as well use blockchain to create a smart contract and make sure the law is real.
Finally, and it is crucial to point out, the term ‘fake news’ has been bastardised (thanks largely to Donald Trump) and most people do not fully understand what it means. A project from the University of Hong Kong is working to educate the masses on what fake news actually looks like, and readers will quickly realise there is a huge gap between perception and reality.
Companies like MSNBC or Fox News tilt in certain directions, and that is problematic, but they do not traffic in fake news. Fake news, by definition, is creating a fantasy story.
Fake news is claiming Hillary Clinton was operating a human trafficking organisation out of a Pizza Parlour. It is NOT suggesting this new law is an embarrassing slip up for a country that has grown into one of the most admired cities in the world but still is still dragged down by perceptions of having an overbearing, stifling, government culture.
This is not to say that fake news is not a problem, but of all the issues that plague our modernity, it is very low on the list.
The law being tabled is the definition of, “cutting off your nose to spite your face” and Singapore is providing a model for copycat authoritarian governments across the world.