To Combat Online Falsehoods, More Political Transparency Is Needed: Thum Ping Tjin

As you may have heard, Minister for Law K. Shanmugam’s Select Committee On Deliberate Online Falsehoods is currently accepting submissions from the public.

The open call for the public’s views has been answered by at least 22 members of the public, including prominent Singaporeans like journalism professor Cherian George and freelance journalist Kirsten Han.

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Add historian Thum Ping Tjin to the list.

The ex-Olympian and first Singaporean to swim across the 34km-long English Channel threw his voice in the fray via online publishing platform Medium.

He opens his statement with a fiery salvo: by claiming that fake news is not a problem in Singapore — with one major exception: the People’s Action Party.

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Let’s take a look at what else the 38-year-old research associate at the University of Oxford had to say about the spread of deliberate online falsehoods.

A (relatively) brief history

Dr Thum starts off with asserting that fake news is “impossible to define with any reasonable accuracy”.

He cites the three factors often used to determine if a piece of writing qualifies as fake news: veracity, intent and impact.

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Pointing out the holes can be picked in the logic of this method of evaluation, he argued that:

a) The truth is subjective. Articles designed to inflame racial and religious tensions may still be factually accurate, but selectively present inflammatory facts while omitting more salient ones.

b) People may be duped into spreading falsehoods. Intent is very difficult to evaluate and prove, especially when a person can easily forward a social media message without thinking.

c) A person may unknowingly spread fake news which results in widespread impact, or conversely may attempt to use fake news for malicious purposes, but utterly fail in doing so. “Impact” is a very vague concept, which is difficult to define and measure.

He then touched on the troubles and lengths that Singapore would have to go through if they wanted to combat fake news at the source, which is almost certain to lie outside Singaporean shores and thus, outside of local legal jurisdiction.

Citing the scope of the Russian campaign which influenced the outlook of the United States presidential election of 2016, Dr Thum suggests that an undertaking to take foreign state actors to task would require “significant resources to pursue”.

We already have legislation in place

Ever the historian, Dr Thum singled out the prosecution of both Amos Yee and The Real Singapore as examples where online falsehoods have been satisfactorily dealt with.


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Given the speed and severity with which online falsehoods in Singapore have been dealt with, he said, further legislation is not required.

One major exception

Going back to the assertion made in the introduction of his statement, Dr Thum cited the numerous detentions under the Internal Security Act.

Operation Coldstore is probably the most prominent example of such detentions.

On 2 Feb 1963, 107 left-wing political leaders were arrested without trial, on suspicion of communist conspiracies. Dr Thum noted that declassified documents have proven this to be a lie.

He then drove home the point by stating the following:

None of the approximately 2,500 people detained under the…Internal Security Act…was ever put on trial for the charges they were detained under.

Affirming that the aforementioned abuses of power served to “detain political opponents and cripple opposing political movements”, Dr Thum bemoaned the fact that “no (PAP) politician has ever faced sanction for any of these falsehoods”.

Solutions to fake news

Dr Thum concluded by proffering his recommendations to the Select Committee:

  1. Educate Singaporeans to be more thoughtful, critical, and skeptical towards information, regardless of source.
  2. Constrain the ability of politicians to spread “fake news” and to increase transparency and accountability within the government.

You may be thinking that these recommendations sound rather vague. Then again, did you really think that PJ would leave you hanging?

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Here’s how he proposes the Government should go about inducing such changes:

  • Expand media literacy programmes which teaches Singaporeans to understand how the information industry works. This will hopefully help them become more politically aware and to interrogate information, regardless of source.
  • A repeal of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974, which effectively gives the government control over the media. He argues that a freer press will lead to greater diversification and independence of responsible media.
  • A repeal of the act would also bring about alternative mainstream media sources, allowing Singaporeans to see issues from multiple perspectives.
  • A Freedom of Information Act similar to that in the USA, where all government documents are declassified and available for public view after 25 years.
  • The establishment of an independent government watchdog (Ombudsman) with the authority to investigate complaints against the government and censure government officials who mislead the public.

Much to think about

All in all, Dr Thum’s piece was an interesting one, if not an enlightening one.

The next step in the public debate regarding fake news might be about the necessity of introducing new legislation to combat the threat, as well as its origins and intentions.

Do you agree with his points? Let us know in the comments section.

Featured image from Facebook.