TL;DR – What we will have is a comprehensive approach.
I’m sure you’ve seen it. Memes, comments, posts by certain alternate media sites claiming that Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Dr Janil Puthucheary suggested that Singapore may start executing people who spread fake news. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Dr Janil said nothing of that sort.
What Dr Janil actually said
What he did say is that we will take a comprehensive approach, like how we did to tackle the drug problem in Singapore, so that we will still have space for a “robust” discourse.
But what does that mean? And how does drugs come into the picture? Dr Janil explained:
“Our approach is never to say that legislation is going to be the be all and end all, or that regulation is going to be the be all and end all. It’s how various components work together. Our approach towards drugs, where it’s not just purely the legislation that is the effective lever, we feel, it’s the ecosystem that has been generated.”
Nowhere did Dr Janil imply anything about having punishments nearly as harsh as those faced by drug offenders. Nowhere. So the people who have been claiming that Dr Janil said anything to the contrary are spreading fake news.
How did that fake news start?
But. I think they can be forgiven. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the headlines of a TODAY article. The headline reads:
“Singapore may fight fake news in the same way as drugs: Puthucheary “
And yes. The way we fight drugs is by using very harsh punishments that include the death penalty. So. Anyone who just reads the headlines and doesn’t read the article can be forgiven for misunderstanding what Dr Janil meant. The root of the problem is probably terrible journalism.
Why use such a headline? What’s wrong with “Singapore will fight fake news with a comprehensive approach”?
It’s almost like the journalist and/or editor was going all out to come up with some sensational headline hoping that it would draw people to read the article.
What this whole incident shows us
This entire incident tells shows us exactly why the problem with fake news is so difficult to solve.
First, many people would say Singapore’s journalistic standards aren’t high. Some would even say that our mainstream media are themselves guilty of spreading fake news. And the headline of this article precisely proves those people right. And we still haven’t touched on other examples of shoddy journalism, and biased reporting.
Second, many people only read headlines. They see some sensational headlines, and don’t bother reading the article. Then they share on social media, adding some comments based on the spurious conclusions they draw from reading just the headlines. And those comments evolve, take on a life of their own, and start growing further and further from the truth.
We really need to be comprehensive
That’s why Dr Janil is right. We can’t simply legislate the problem away. No amount of legislation will work if people continue to be lazy, continue not to read carefully and critically. No amount of legislation will work if our journalistic standards remain as they are.
And in case you think I’m overly harsh on local journalist, I’m not the first who think that the standards of local journalism isn’t high. Someone once said this:
“There is such a thing as a language environment. Ours is a bad one. Those of you who have come back from a long stay in a good English-speaking environment would have felt the shock when reading The Straits Times on returning.
I spent a month in Vancouver in October 1968. Then I went on to Harvard University in Boston. For one month, I read the papers in Vancouver. They were not much better than The Straits Times. They had one million people, English-speaking. But there was no sparkle in their pages.
The contrast in Harvard was dazzling. From the undergraduate paper, The Harvard Crimson, to the Boston Globe, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, every page crackled with novel ideas, smartly presented. Powerful minds had ordered those words. Ideas had been thought out and dressed in clean, clear prose.”
That person is Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
He said that in 1979. About 40 years have passed since he said those words. It seems like our journalistic standards haven’t improved. And that’s quite unfortunate. If we want to fight fake news, our journalistic standards MUST improve.
As for the rest of us, let’s go beyond just reading the headlines. Let’s read critically. Think rationally. Be open to be proven wrong. If we can do that, then we would have a chance at fighting fake news.