SINGAPORE: The Singapore Parliament agreed to the formation of a Select Committee to study deliberate online falsehoods on Wednesday (Jan 10).
Speaking in Parliament, Law Minister K Shanmugam said the deliberate spread of online falsehoods is a serious problem today and Singapore is susceptible because of its high Internet penetration rates.
Even as public education remains a first line of defence, mechanisms need to be in place to respond swiftly to these falsehoods, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim who spoke in support of the motion.
Indeed, the problem is a complex one, requiring a broader national conversation. A better grasp of the challenges will be a good starting point for that dialogue.
MISINFORMED BUT UNAWARE
In my view, social media users should play an active role in the Government’s efforts to address the problem of deliberate online falsehoods in Singapore, for they can be considered society’s first line of defence against their spread.
Some say that if social media users do not share or believe in false information online, it’ll be hard for such falsehoods to spread. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A survey we conducted in July last year found that most Singaporeans are confident they can distinguish falsehoods from real news.
Still, nearly 20 per cent of those we surveyed reported having experienced believing in a social media post that turned out to be false.
But this figure only represents those who were able to figure out they were misinformed on social media. Most likely, many more have been misinformed without realising it.
In our studies at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), we used the term “fake news” which we define as “referring to viral posts based on fictitious accounts made to look like news reports”. This term, however, has been used in different ways, even to attack legitimate journalists.
Our studies essentially focused on deliberate online falsehoods, made to look like legitimate news stories, but are motivated by either political or financial gain.
While recent studies conducted in the United States claim that the problem is widespread but shallow – that is, while falsehoods reach a lot of people, their impact remains minimal – it has become a source of concern for many Singaporeans.
DIFFICULT TO TRACK
Our series of studies at NTU highlight four important considerations in figuring out the best way to tackle the problem: The role of social media, the responsibility of the public, the need for media literacy, and the impact on journalism.
The series of surveys and focus group discussions we have conducted highlight the major role of social media platforms in the propagation of misinformation.
This is due in part to Singapore’s global connectivity: Singapore has among the highest social media penetration rates around the world, enabled by a reliable digital infrastructure network.
Social media facilitate the easy and quick spread of information, both accurate and inaccurate, across geographical boundaries.
This presents a challenge for policy, for how can nations regulate information flowing from other countries into online interpersonal networks?
Many of these information exchanges occur privately. While falsehoods posted on Facebook can be easily spotted, falsehoods sent through private messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, are more difficult to track.
The challenge of regulation is compounded by the widespread use of private messaging apps. Our July 2017 survey also found that WhatsApp is used by almost 93 per cent of our respondents, making it the most popular social media platform in Singapore.
NOT ENOUGH TO JUST IGNORE
A second important factor is how social media users respond to online falsehoods.
Another survey we conducted in December 2016 found that 73 per cent of our respondents just ignore these posts when they see them on social media, compared with only 12 per cent who said they would report such a post to get it removed.
A plausible reason for this is the nature of social media platforms being founded on the idea of maintaining social relationships.
Many users seem to consider calling the attention of a friend or correcting them over falsehoods as contradictory to the idea of maintaining social connections.
While social media platforms such as Facebook have rolled out functions to report or flag misinformation, they should look into ways to encourage such reporting.
They should also find ways to lessen the potential stigma of correcting misinformation and instead incentivise proactive behaviours among social media users when it comes to fighting falsehoods online.
OLDER ADULTS MORE VULNERABLE
Third, many groups correctly recommend media literacy interventions to educate social media users on the dangers of misinformation as well as to equip them with skills to spot falsehoods online.
These recommendations come in the form of institutionalising media literacy modules across different levels or integrating lectures on misinformation in existing courses.
However, our research at NTU also identifies older adults as a vulnerable population when it comes to online falsehoods. Younger, more technologically savvy users tend to report that they have spotted misinformation more often that older users.
We also hear this in our focus group discussions. Our interviews with participants aged 66 and above found that many of them are also active on WhatsApp and that they rely on their network of WhatsApp friends for their news.
Some of them even turn to their WhatsApp group chats, most either based on their neighbourhood or previous jobs, to ask if something they saw online was real.
This is again consistent with the structure of social media – where users rely on friends they trust for information and entertainment.
Maintaining these relationships might be considered more important than the accuracy of the information being exchanged.
SERIOUS CHALLENGE TO JOURNALISM
Finally, we have also started exploring the impact of deliberate online falsehoods on news organisations.
Falsehoods are posing a serious challenge to journalism not only in terms of audience attention, but also credibility.
An information ecosystem characterised by widespread falsehoods can also hurt the credibility of journalism as a profession.
An online experiment conducted at NTU found that while social media users trust their social media friends more than mainstream news organisations, news is still considered more credible when it is shared by a mainstream news organisation.
Our studies also consistently show that while the public may complain about the media for its shortcomings in coverage from time to time, they still regard these news organisations as credible.
Thus, it is important to continue empowering Singapore’s mainstream media, ensuring that they are able to do their work in reporting the news accurately and responsibly.
Many of the people we interviewed and surveyed also said that when they see questionable posts on social media, they still turn to national news organisations in Singapore to verify.
Thus, news organisations, based on their work routines, are in the best position to carry out fact-checking to challenge deliberate online falsehoods.
Edson C Tandoc Jr is an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU. His research focuses on online news production and consumption. He is also involved in several projects analysing the problem of fake news. The project involving focus group interviews with social media users cited here also includes NTU professors Rich Ling, Andrew Duffy and Nuri Kim.