The government of Singapore is working its way towards regulating “fake news.” This is already a problem, as no government that has tackled this issue has been able to define what “fake news” is, other than news the government doesn’t like. A government granting itself the power to unilaterally remove competing narratives is something that never goes out of style, and those picking up the “fake news” torch from the Twitter feed of the leader of the free world tend to be of the authoritarian variety.
The government’s “Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods” sought input from citizens on the proposed legislation. Then it recast that input by memorializing it in a way that downplayed, if not excised completely, any input that didn’t align with the government’s views.
Freelance journalist Kirsten Han stated her opinion on several matters during the committee’s hearing, only to find out the government’s prepared summary of the session portrayed her dissenting opinions as roughly concurring with the committee’s views.
I generally argued that there should be no new legislation that would police or censor content, such as legislation that might allow the government to issue takedown orders, as Singapore already has plenty of legislation that can deal with online falsehoods or content that incite social disharmony or exert undue influence on elections. I also argued for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore — one of the recommendations I made in my written submission.
I was horrified to see my views so drastically misrepresented within the Summary of Evidence.
Yes, the committee on fake news created fake news. The summary of the committee hearing — which will presumably be used to inform legislators about potential issues with a fake news law — is a misrepresentation of what actually happened during the hearings. Here’s one example from Han’s post, which should be read in its entirety to gain a full appreciation of the committee’s editorializing of meeting minutes. (The committee’s phrasing is in italics, with Han’s response in bold.)
i. 92% of Singaporeans, at face value, supported more effective laws, including to remove falsehoods. Ms Han did not support the need for more effective legislation as there were existing powers and she accepted that she may be out of step with the majority of the population.
I was asked about the REACH survey a few times during the session. Firstly, I questioned the survey, and said that I did not accept the survey’s results at face value. This was also reflected in Ms Bertha Henson’s blog post on the session.
While I do accept that perhaps I might be “out of step” with the majority, I am once again registering for the record that I question the survey and its results.
Another point of discussion was rewritten by the committee to make it appear as though Han had admitted some of her other writing was possibly “fake news.”
vi. On her article in relation to the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, she agreed that it could be interpreted as being incomplete or misleading.
I did not agree that my article could be interpreted as being incomplete or misleading. I stand by my article. I accepted that Mr Tong had a different opinion, as is his right, and advocated engagement and discussion over conflicting interpretations.
Rather than leave this open to interpretation or allow the committee to turn it into an our-word-against-hers “victory,” Han has also uploaded clips of her responses to the committee’s questions to YouTube (these are included in her Medium post), where anyone can compare the camera’s record of the hearing with the committee’s rose-tinted recollections.
Speech regulation predicated on vague terminology is always a vehicle for government censorship. The committee overplayed its hand here, though, offering up pre-censorship censorship of the official record in hopes of showing no one was all that opposed to letting the Singaporean government control what’s said about it.