Truth In The Age of Disinformation
It is said that those who tell the stories rule society. We are in an age where traditional arbiters of stories—otherwise, the truths of our society—in the form of religious institutions, the state and even mainstream media, have seen their authority come under great siege.
Today, at the mere tap of a finger, we have access to an excess of alternate sources of information in various forms. WWII archival footage and government White and Green Papers jostle for attention alongside personal blog posts, live video streams and tweets from celebrities, charlatans and presidents alike, covering everything from politics to the compellingly inane. #showerthoughts, anyone?
Such is the great equalising power of the Internet, though it comes at a price. The deluge of information provided is a double-edged sword, serving up just as much misinformation as it does accurate fact. Its pervasiveness ties in with our increasing levels of social connectivity across various online platforms, which means that we are frequently subject, both in public and private, voluntarily and involuntarily, to a discombobulating smorgasbord of information—some of which is courtesy of intelligent data-mining, tailoring algorithms and even more unexpectedly, the cheery deviltry of a few enterprising Macedonians.
Which raises the question: what or who holds the power of influence/storytelling today, and is the apparent democracy offered by the Internet merely an illusion of empowerment?
Aristotle made the presupposition that “all human beings by nature desire to know”, and “truth is the proper object of this [aforementioned] desire”, in the words of Pope John Paul II. Presuming that our universal human objective is an interest in our individual freedom to pursue and discover truth ultimately, then it is in our interest and responsibility to ensure that what we are informed of is truthful and true. In an age where information easily turns into an assault of the senses, our search for truth has become increasingly difficult and yet, more so purposeful. Can we be critical, objective consumers and producers of the truth?
We speak with Dr Carol Soon, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (NUS) and a committee member of the Media Literacy Council to find out how we can best use the Internet. Dr Soon also spoke at the 8-days-long hearing of the recent Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, addressing the definitions of and dangers of both fake news and deliberate online falsehoods (DOFs).
HNW: Is there a distinction between fake news and deliberate online falsehoods (DOFs)?
Dr Carol Soon: In research and literature published, media practitioners as well as academics who study the phenomenon, fake news has a few defining characteristics, one of which is being a piece of information that has been deliberately fabricated to deceive. Another characteristic is to achieve political or economic ends, such as getting more ‘eyeballs’ for a particular website to generate revenue. It also usually assumes the form or disguise of a news article. DOFs cover a much broader spectrum of misinformation, of which fake news is just one type. DOFs are information produced to deliberately deceive or to convey a wrong message, impression or idea about a particular person, event, or anything.
Why is it important to define what is fake news?
One of US President Donald Trump’s most recent tweets talked about how the media is critical towards him and his policies are “fake”, because they are negative. He’s making the correlation between negative news and fake news—in order words, what is negative news about his administration equals fake news. That’s just one example of the abuse of the term Fake News.
Mislabeling negative news or opinion as fake news by a person in a position of authority, or an organisation can cause several consequences, such as confusion among people who come into contact with the information. People also start to wonder if it is really fake and over time, this can lead to the erosion of trust in institutions such as the media and journalism. I think that doesn’t help us in a time when people are already grappling with a fair bit of disinformation online.
How prevalent are issues with DOF and fake news in Singapore?
We see a fair bit of what I call low breach DOF that cause anxiety and inconvenience, but can be more easily debunked by the stakeholders involved. An example of fake news that made its rounds through Whatsapp last year was an article by a site, glonews360.com, falsely reporting that Singapore’s minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had collapsed during a summit meeting in the US.
In June last year also, there was a piece of information circulating online saying that on point-of-death, our CPF savings would be transferred to the Medisave account of our nominee, by default. That is not true or a practice of CPF, and is an example of DOF. This particular case was circulated through Whatsapp, SMS and on social media. DOFs are also usually not confined to just one platform or form. Sometimes they can be transmitted in the form of a picture or video recording.
Sometime last year, there was also an article published on a site, allsingaporestuff.com, which showed an image of a collapsed rooftop in Punggol residential estate that actually led to the dispatch of SCDF forces on-site. It was quite quickly debunked by residents living in the area who noted that the image was wrongly depicted, and went online to social media such as Facebook, to tell others in their network that no such thing had occurred. This debunking was also picked up by the Chinese newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, which helped spread the correction.
Other kinds of DOFs include falsehoods such as plastic rice being sold at one of the leading supermarket chains, or the National Environment Agency charging a fine if you leave your used tissues behind at a hawker centre.
I think these all sound like cases of well-intended, if misguided, spreading of information.
I think the intentions are often benign and well-intentioned, but people don’t consider the kinds of impact or implications their actions can cause. They might want to highlight certain dangers or issues to people that they care about, so disseminate DOFs about plastic rice or eggs being sold in the supermarkets, wanting their friends and relatives to be aware and check. But they can cause anxiety, confusion or even fear among those they share the information with, which can lead to reputational risk.
So the problem is not just the people who produce the DOF, but also with the people who spread them. They are also complicit. If DOFs are produced but do not gain traction such that readers disseminate it, then the producers’ intent or strategy actually comes to nought.
Why is learning “through the grapevine”, albeit online today, so different than before?
Falsehoods and fake information have existed as long as man has been around. Governments, politicians, organisations and individuals are all equally complicit in producing and disseminating fake news and false information for their own gain. So this phenomenon is not new, but what aggravates it today is that a lot of it is transmitted online, and spread very quickly and easily. And online, such falsehoods can have a lingering presence, and people who are less aware could be taken in.
What is interesting is that just a few days before this interview, I received the same DOF through my Whatsapp network, pertaining to the transferring of CPF money to the Medisave account of our nominees. This is the same piece of misinformation that is still making its rounds, one year later, in spite of the government and CPF board having quickly debunked it when it first arose last year.
We’ve also seen different instances of DOF which could have fairly more serious consequences because it could lead to discord and unhappiness between communities in Singapore. One of the notable cases is the shutdown of the website, The Real Singapore, a few years ago. They had articles that made false allegations, such as a Filipino family’s complaints that led to a dispute between the police and Thaipusam participants.
Why is media literacy particularly important in the case of Singapore?
We are a very small country, but with a very diverse and very well-connected society—not just in terms of trade, but also in human flow. We have various diaspora from across the world staying in Singapore. So diversity exists not just in race and religion, but also nationality.
In order to live, learn and work well with very different people in our society. I think it is important to be a bit more critical and practise healthy scepticism of what we read. We don’t want to fall prey to misinformation that creates entrenched stereotypes that might affect our interaction with people who are different from us, or fall prey to attempts at sowing discord between different racial or religious groups, or even between locals and foreigners.
A few years ago, a colleague and I did a research on something we call corrosive speech, which is basically online vitriol targeted at foreigners, as well as racial minorities living in Singapore. When we did the research in 2012, there was a fair bit of anti-foreigner sentiment, and looking at some of the more popular websites in Singapore then were more provocative on the issue. They published articles that focused on foreigners living amidst us, and if you looked at the comments on those articles, there were a lot of negative feelings and sentiments expressed, even incitement to violence and discrimination against certain communities. I think that is an example of an extreme consequence of what rumours, misinformation and fake news about groups of people in a society can lead to.
What is the usual profile of victims of DOF in Singapore?
We have not yet seen a very distinct profile for victims of DOF in Singapore, but based on my research on fake news and disinformation around the world, some existing research suggests that people who are a little bit more extreme in their political views tend to be more vulnerable to fake news and false information. Another group of people who could be more vulnerable to falsehoods are those who are maybe socially or economically excluded in society–the ones who feel that they are marginalised.
In Singapore, what we know based on the different types of people who have been affected is that they come from a wide spectrum across society. We recognise that DOFs can affect anyone, and the Media Literacy Council is observing Safer Internet Day with Better Internet Campaign, the tagline: “Be Kind, Do What’s Right Online”. Its website offers tips targeted at different segments of our society, such as parents, youths, senior citizens and working adults.
What kind of internet habits would make us vulnerable to DOFs?
The internet has done many wonderful things for society and people. It’s enabled us to access information so easily, and changed the way we do our research, the way we gain information and learn about things. With just a couple of clicks, we now have access to information sources from around the world.
The negative part is that because things are so easily and quickly accessible to us, technologies have inadvertently transformed the way we consume information. We now want information quick and fast, and we have so much, we also process them very quickly. It is this rapid processing of information that sometimes lands us in hot soup because we are not getting sufficient context or knowledge about a claim we see online, and human nature is such that we tend to want to share what is sensational or novel.
Algorithms on websites and online platforms also predict and personalise what users would like to read and know, which is good, because it can lead to a lot of convenience for users, because we are directed to information that we are interested in. The downside of this personalisation is that we become more locked into our own thought bubbles and echo chambers. We tend to only hear or see things that only adhere to our beliefs and existing values. That means that we are less likely to be exposed to other people or information sources talk about things from the opposite perspective. There are pros and cons, but these are some of the habits and inherent issues that came arise from living in the digital age.
What can we do to combat the negative effects?
It’s simply taking a bit more effort to read more widely. Look for more diverse sources. For news in North America for example, in as much as it may sometimes be jarring and even, irritating, I look at news from both CNN and Fox, for example. I don’t just look at news from a particular group of media, which may have a certain ideological slant. In Singapore, we have Channel News Asia, Today, The Straits Times and more all covering the same topic from slightly different angles, because they each frame the issues differently. And for important topics, I also don’t just read mainstream and traditional media but go online to see what other people might be saying on different websites.
Yes, that takes time, but if we are concerned about being locked up in an echo chamber where we only hear things from a particular perspective, then we might just want to exercise that little bit of effort and time to read beyond our comfort zones.
Do you see the effects of these echo chambers trickling down into the way that society functions?
There definitely is an impact. If we want to look at a vibrant democratic space, we’re talking about people being not just able to have access to a variety of information from different sources, but to also be able to engage in an issue when they talk to other people, or give their opinion or feedback to say, the government, when it calls for public feedback.
Engaging with an issue is not just about saying only what we think, or making recommendations based on our own experiences. What would also be good to know is the limitations and challenges that are faced by other people who may not be similar to us, who may hold a very, very different set of values or belief system. When we are locked in echo chambers, we also become less aware of the issues and difficulties that other segments of society are facing.
How do we verify information is DOF?
There are 3 strategies to deal with DOF:
Vigilance—The first step, which can be done by anybody, is to not simply read the headlines. Because of the deluge of information that comes our way online, we often no longer read an article in its entirety. People tend to scan the headlines or read the blurbs, and if they think it’s something interesting, sensational or provocative, they share it. If you must share something, take the trouble to read an article before sharing it just because of the headline.
Veracity—Another strategy to apply is really to just look at the URL of the article and website. In the run-up to the US presidential election, there were what we call “doppelganger” websites, which were set up to look like established sites that had been around for a long time. There was a url for a particular website called abcnews.com.co. Looking at the site’s address would trigger off a warning for some of us because it looks odd with a “.co” at the end, and a quick google would show that it is an imitation url.
Verify—Go online. Everybody who’s online should have access to Google. With the CPF savings case, I went online, searched the keywords, “CPF”, “savings” and “Medisave account”, and immediately got a string of hits telling me that it was a DOF, from mainstream media sources like The Straits Times. It also led to Factually, which is a fact-checking website set up by the Ministry of Communications and Information.
Just do these very simple things before you spread the information. It will save ourselves and those we might share it with unnecessary anxiety, confusion and embarrassment and reputation risk.
“Therefore do they hate the truth for the sake of that thing which they love instead of the truth. They love truth when she shines on them, and hate her when she rebukes them. For, because they are not willing to be deceived, and wish to deceive, they love her when she reveals herself, and hate her when she reveals them.” –St Augustine
What will our “truths” reveal about us?
* * *
Explore and learn how technology is changing the way we work, live, learn, play and invent at Tech Saturday Upsized 2018: Living in the Digital Age.
Date: 2 & 3 June 2018 (11am – 7pm), Venue: Suntec Convention Centre Hall 404 and 405
This year, Tech Saturday Upsized will introduce an interactive Tech Talk area in the Learn zone, with a range of speakers sharing about various tech and media-related issues, from cyber-wellness to coding.