Speech by Henry Kwek on Parliament Debate on Motion to Appoint Committee to Deliberate Online Falsehoods
1. “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
a. This is an insightful slogan of Washington Post, a well-regarded US newspaper.
b. The Washington Post recognizes that a democracy cannot survive and thrive without a public discourse informed by facts, truth and transparency.
2. Indeed, in the past few years, leading democracies have been hacked. The long list includes US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and Italy. These nations have been hacked by foreign powers and special interest groups, who systematically injected fake news, into the openness and connectedness of many democracies, so as to further their foreign agenda or narrow interests. And in several instances, they have succeeded.
3. Why do such concerted efforts frequently succeed, even in mature democracies with well-informed electorate? We are beginning to benefit from new research on fake news. Dartmouth College recently analysed the real and fake news consumption of thousands of adults during the run-up to the
US 2016 election.
4. The research shows that most lies and false rumours online go nowhere. However, one of the researchers, Dr Brendan Nyhan, noted that social media companies have algorithms that are “dangerously effective at identifying memes that are well-adapted to surviving, and these also tend to be rumours and conspiracy theories that are hardest to correct.” In short, few pieces of fake news survive, but those that do go viral.
5. We should not be surprised by the ingenuity of these algorithms, because social media companies have an overriding financial incentive to keep us entertained and connected, for as many hours a day as possible, by trying to deliver one dopamine dose, one newsfeed at a time.
6. Fake news also thrives because of our psychological make-up. Psychologists note that for the human mind to critically examine whether an article is true or false, a person must first mentally articulate them, temporarily accepting the news as possibly true. But even if our brain subsequently rule what we read as fake, our mind have already made a subconscious note of it, and this lingers in our minds longer than we think.
7. Psychologists also believe that repetition matters. Merely seeing a newsfeed headlines many times, even if they are later debunked as fake news, make it more credible than it should. In short, even if we recognise news as fake, fake news can influence us subtly.
8. People may speculate as to the reasons for this Select Committee. In fact, it has been suggested that one of the reasons for convening this Select Committee is the petition process which was initiated by some activists in relation to Parliament’s consideration and eventual adoption of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill in August 2016. Such speculation does not change the issue at hand.
9. In view of the danger that certain state and non-state actors pose, by weaponising disinformation into fake news, I support the creation of the Select Committee on Online Falsehood.
10.Beyond the formation of the selection committee, I have two other suggestions.
a. One. While the committee’s work is crucial, we should tackle the issue upstream, by strengthening our people’s understanding of how our society works.
i. Any country with an under-informed electorate has fertile ground for fake news to thrive. Therefore, we must find more effective ways to keep our people well informed about the fundamentals of how our society works.
ii. This includes:
1. How our society manages our multicultural and multireligious fault-lines.
2. How the government spends its money, and how we manage our reserve systems.
3. How our political and electoral process functions.
4. How we encourage transparent and public debate among Singaporeans,
5. But also how we say no to foreign influence on our public opinion.
iii. A good way to start is to teach these in school. Today, we do teach critical thinking in school, and we do have social studies and national education. But more can and must be done.
b. Two. We should commission detailed and prolong studies to understand how Singaporeans gather news, and how social media shapes their views.
i. When I meet young citizens, I sometimes ask them how they build up their world-view, and what is their source of news.
ii. More and more, I am hearing that they are increasingly relying increasingly on news from social media or whatsapp sharing.
iii. A clear understanding how the news consumption patterns will be necessary to help us calibrate policy, so that we can balance a healthy discourse with necessary intervention.
11.Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me conclude. Public discourse is the means for our society to reflect collectively.
a. Reflect on what values matter. Reflect on whether our policies have lived up to our ideals. Reflection on whether we have pushed a logical idea to its illogical extreme.
b. For the longest time, our mainstream media has served as an accurate mirror for our society to reflect upon.
c. With the rise of social media and the decline of mainstream media, many Singaporeans are no longer even looking at the same mirror. At the same time, vested or financial interest distort their social newsfeeds more and more each day.
12.In the decades ahead, we have a lot of major decisions to make. And we need to collectively decide our way forward on the basis of facts, and not rumours. And certainly not fake news.
13.We must do everything in our power to combat fake news. To ensure that Singapore’s public deliberations continue to be enlightened.
14.Because “Democracy dies in Darkness”.
15.With that, Mr Deputy Speaker, I stand in support of the motion.