Government should be a 'lifeguard' in fake news fight

The local online citizenry is savvy enough to detect online falsehoods most of the time, but some situations warrant government intervention, said two academics from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

On a normal day, "low-level online trolling" can be easily dismissed by local netizens, Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun told the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods yesterday.

But in an emergency such as an epidemic outbreak or riot, or a major event such as an election, the Government should step in "as a lifeguard", he said, adding that it should issue take-down notices of falsehoods and keep close tabs on those who create such fake news.

And such steps should not be taken quietly as they could fan conspiracy theories and suspicion, but should be publicised.

Dr Liew said: "The take-down principle is important for expressing a strong message... that the Government is serious about this."

Associate Professor Alton Chua agreed, adding: "The taking down itself cannot be done in isolation of other measures. It has to be publicised on mainstream media. It has to be interpreted in the larger context of what we value as a society."

Speaking to the media after the hearing, Dr Liew said the Government should pay special attention to foreign trolls.

He noted that after President Halimah Yacob was elected last year, her Facebook page was inundated with more than 40,000 comments in simplified Chinese script.

During the hearing, both professors said other longer-term measures should be taken.

Dr Liew said citizens should be made more aware of what to look out for and the Government must be seen to take action when citizens raise complaints, as tensions can be easily exploited by online trolls to spark a crisis.

In his written submission, Prof Chua called for the National Education curriculum to be expanded to cover the moral, legal and social implications of fake news.

He also suggested supporting and growing fact-checking online communities.