Singapore minister K Shanmugam calls out “fake news” sites

K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs & Minister for Law, has raised the red flag on the prevalence and impact of fake news in Singapore. In a recent Parliamentary discussion, addressing the issue, he talked about the real world consequences of fake news and hoaxes, if not corrected quickly.

“They can cause harm to Singaporeans, alarm to the public, emergency resources will have to be diverted and the reputation of businesses and people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged. All because some nasty people seek to profit from this,” Shanmugam said. In his speech, Shanmugam named websites such as All Singapore Stuff and States Times Review as websites which perpetuate fake stories, raised the potential impact fake news has on national security, on top of ill-profiteering.

Shanmugam added that current remedies to deal with falsehoods are limited and called them "ineffective as they were really looking at a time before the new age as it were". He added:

The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. So we need to do more.

Shanmugam said that the Singapore government is seriously considering how to address the fake news issue and will announce its position once its review has been completed.

Need for defining what “fake news” is

The topic of fake news hits close to home, with local brands such as NTUC FairPrice filing a police report over online rumours that its house brand jasmine fragrant rice is made of plastic. The supermarket chain earlier told Marketing that it has since passed safety checks and as such, this false information should no longer be circulated online.

According to an article on ST, other brands that have fallen prey to fake news include Bata, National Environment Agency and SBS transit.

In a conversation with Marketing, Preetham Venkky, director at KRDS Singapore, said that the first step to tackling fake news would be for stakeholders to come to consensus in defining what constitutes as fake news.He explained that currently, there are three levels to what can be consider fake news.

The first is "recontextualisation", which takes a factual issue and creates falsehoods when contextualising it. Next is  "factual extrapolation" – which takes facts and inaccurately extrapolates information in a manner which is misleading. Finally the most common and obvious form of fake news are stories which have been completely falsified and hence, a hoax.

“Combating fake news is difficult because not only is it hard to define what it is, it is also something which dies down as quickly as it can have a flash point as short as 48 hours. However, in a short amount time, fake news can still foster perceptions hence its impact can still be high,” Venkky said.

While Ryan Lim, principal consultant and founding partner of QED Consulting, agreed with Venkky on the impact and importance of defining what fake news is, he added that doing so may prove to be a difficult process.

While having a better definition is important, we might not be able to get an exact definition because of varying levels of truths present in an article.

Hence, it might be hard to pull out the real from the fake.

What should stakeholders do next?

What this means is that stakeholders, such as those implicated and government bodies, need to work towards raising awareness about the impact and implications of fake news.

“We need to be able to inoculate the population and allow them to better understand what is fake news and how to be discerning and sensitive towards it,” Lim explained, saying that the government’s acknowledgement of the problem is already the first step.

Agreeing with Lim is Kristian Olsen, managing director of Type A, who added that the government’s move to focus on combating fake news is one which is a necessary step that must be taken to ensure citizens on social media are not misguided and misinformed.

There are two major ways to approach the problem of fake news, according to KRDS’s Venkky. The first is tackling the source of the fake, and the next is tackling platforms which spread it. When it comes to tackling the source issue of fake news, Venkky suggested that governing bodies take on the responsibility of sending warning letters to websites and sources which publish fake news. He added:

There also needs to be an authority which figures out how to scale the effort and decide how rapidly it can be carried out.

In response, QED’s Lim added that this measure may come with its limitations, especially if the source is one which is based overseas. Hence, cross border legal requirements may come into play.

“If a website is hosted in another country, the issue now becomes more complex due to jurisdiction matters. Governments from affected countries would need to be talking to each other legally before taking any disciplinary actions on fake news sources,” Lim explained.

Where social media players come in

To tackle the spread of fake news, KRDS’s Venkky added that one potential measure is the formation of partnerships with social media companies and publishers, one example being formation of tools to verify the accuracy of news sources.

“For brands and marketers, more discussion is also needed when it comes to exclusionary terms for their digital and social campaigns. This is with a focus on excluding specific audiences, terms and key words which perpetuate negative content and hate,” Venkky explained.

Expanding more on the topic is Type A’s Olsen, who explained the importance of monitoring audience sentiment and listening to what is being said online.

“Your keywords should be updated regularly to pick up news subjects that matter. You can't just leave a list of 30 keywords to lead audience listening for the whole year. These terms need to be updated and added on towards,” Olsen said.

That way, brands can then pinpoint negative topics, and if they are deemed “fake and wrong” – they will then be able release content earlier which negates the issue.

“You can also find out where the source of the fake news and its main sharers are. The more these fake news sites are called out, in time the public will also know to take any content they consume from these sites with a pinch of salt,” Olsen said.