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Minister Shanmugam Turns The Heat Up On Facebook At Fake News Hearing

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The Law Minister Had A Spirited Debate With Facebook Senior Exec At Fake News Hearing

Over the past week, the Select Committee On Deliberate Online Falsehoods has hauled academics and media professionals to testify in front of a panel of Parliamentarians.

Early debates were peppered with awkward puns and obscure references, but yesterday (22 Mar)’s session has proven the most entertaining.

Featuring social media and Internet executives, the session was marked by raised tempers and testy temperaments.

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At the session, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Select Committee, which is chaired by PAP MP Charles Chong.

Also present were spokesmen from Singtel and StarHub.

In the wake of disturbing revelations that revealed Facebook’s role in a data harvesting scandal, all eyes were on its Vice-President of Public Policy for Asia-Pacific, Mr Simon Milner.

A whistleblower revealed that the social media giant had failed to regulate third-party app developers, which led to user data being shared with political research firm Cambridge Analytica.

That data is believed to have influenced elections, including the one that put Mr Donald Trump in the White House.

Facebook “got it wrong”

Given these revelations, it’s no surprise that Mr Milner was singled out for questioning by Law Minister K Shanmugam, who also sits on the Select Committee.

Things didn’t look too good for Mr Milner once he admitted that Facebook “got it wrong” over its handling of the recent Cambridge Analytica breach.

That set the tone for the entire exchange between Mr Milner and Mr Shanmugam, which looked a little like this:

After watching the entire video, you can see that:

  • The mood pretty much remained the same throughout the entire time the two were conversing
  • The frown on Mr Milner’s face doesn’t fade.

Here’s a (not-so) quick rundown of what was said between the two chrome-domed men. Well, nearly chrome-domed for one of them.

Yes, no, yes, no

Early in the exchange, Mr Shanmugam stated that his questions were “designed for a yes-or-no answer”, telling Mr Milner to give a yes or no before carrying on with his explanation.

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With that tone set, the duo debated semantics and technicalities for the large part of the first hour of their nearly-90 minute exchange.

At some point, the conversation turned to rumours about whether American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring.

These rumours surfaced during the 2016 Presidential Election.

Mr Milner stated that Facebook had no way of knowing whether the rumours were true or false.

He said, while it was the kind of thing “no reasonable person would believe”, these things are “not as clear-cut as you (Mr Shanmugam) are suggesting”.

Shortly after, another testy moment soon reared its ugly head.

Mr Shanmugam noted that Mr Milner was “very anxious to answer questions I haven’t asked”.

When Mr Milner responded that he was genuinely trying to help him, the Law Minister said that he wanted to “help you help me”.

Are you really?
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Facebook and fake news

The two then debated Facebook’s policy on dealing with fake news, with Mr Milner saying:

If it’s (an online falsehood) shown to be false, through a court process and we get a court order, then we can and will respect that court order.

This led Mr Shanmugam to his next point. He asked Mr Milner if he “realised” that courts can only act based on legislation.

To this, Mr Milner said that he did, adding that he understood what the Law Minister was implying.

Mr Shanmguam chuckled at this and said that his debate opponent was “smart” to have sussed out what he was hinting at.

This wry compliment might be the clearest indication yet that Parliament is considering introducing legislation to force social media companies to remove online falsehoods.

Act too quickly…

But Mr Milner didn’t respond to the compliment with gratitude.

Instead, he went philosophical, spouting a Plato-esque maxim:

Legislation which is enacted in haste can often be regretted at length.

Timeout!

A short recess did little to cool tempers.

Mr Milner accused Mr Shanmugam of an inappropriate line of questioning when the latter began reading Facebook testimonies given to the American and British governments.

Disturbed by this, Mr Milner appealed to Mr Chong. But the Punggol East MP told him coolly,

Leave it to us to decide what is relevant.

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Mr Shanmugam then explained his rationale for his supposedly inappropriate questioning:

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Talk about a mic drop.

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The best of the rest

Mr Milner wasn’t the only one grilled that day.

The hearings also saw representatives from Twitter, Google, Singtel and StarHub taking the stand, as well as a 15-year-old boy.

Here are some choice cuts from them.

Twitter

No single company, governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth.
Instead, we see journalists, experts and engaged citizens tweeting side-by-side to affirm, correct and challenge public discourse in seconds.

Ms Kathleen Reen, director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific

Google

Our mission is to point to high quality sources of information. If a particular news article requires a correction, we wouldn’t be able to correct it, because it is another company’s content.

Ms Irene Jay Liu, News Lab Lead, Asia Pacific

Singtel, StarHub

The representatives from Singtel (Mr Yuen Kuan Moon & Mr Slattery Sean Patrick) and StarHub (Mr Tim Goodchild) were united in addressing the capabilities of their respective ISPs in tackling this issue.

All three admitted that they were not able to block any particular post on social media, instead having to block the entire domain.

The social media company would actually have to delete the tweet off their platform.

 Mr Tim Goodchild, Head, Regulatory Affairs, StarHub

Way to tai-chi, guys.

Coming this summer, probably

The topic of fake news has never been more relevant.

Citing that case of a viral cartoon that pushed to deport all Muslims, Mr Shanmugam said that “no amount of protestation that self-regulation will be enough is going to wash”.

In other words, prepare for new legislation. Coming soon to a Parliament near you.

Featured image from YouTube.

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