The deliberate spread of falsehoods and misinformation
Yes this is a problem everywhere from India and Myanmar to Russia and the US. The consequences can be horrific.
But in Singapore? One can reasonably argue that the People’s Action Party (PAP), the government and the mainstream media channels it controls have historically been some of the main sources of falsehoods and misinformation (in terms of reach and impact).
In the late 1980s, Lee Hsien Loong, then trade and industry minister, was one of the politicians who alleged that a group of people were plotting a Marxist Conspiracy.
In 2001, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then senior minister, said “from what I knew of them [the alleged conspirators], most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”
Sadly, one of our two leaders has got his facts wrong. Since both statements are still in the public domain, I hope our new, superpower “true-or-false” ministers will soon decide and strike down the lie.
During campaigning at the 2015 General Elections, Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore Chinese paper, published allegations from a poison pen letter suggesting that Daniel Goh, the Workers’ Party candidate, had had an affair with one of his students. The Straits Times and Channel News Asia repeated the allegation, the latter with a salacious “Did he or did he not?” teaser.
One reason falsehoods and misinformation are of global concern today is because of their potential to affect elections. At Singapore’s last election, the worst and possibly only instance of widespread misinformation was produced by three of Singapore’s mainstream media channels.
One curious clause in the government’s new bill is General Exemption #61. “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act.”
Well, dear reader, you don’t need to guess whom they are going to exempt; they already did so in the last election—none of those mainstream media channels were punished.
Likewise, no action was taken against PAP politician Charles Chong, whose printed flyers made a wild, false accusation against the Workers Party ahead of the election. Quite the contrary. After spreading what seems to be fake news, Chong was appointed chair of the government’s fake news committee (yes, you read that right.)
Of course there are anti-PAP campaigns of falsehoods and misinformation, like The Real Singapore. I have no respect for such publications. But the salient point is that because of their highly limited reach, none of them have had any material impact on the government’s or the PAP’s reputation thus far.
Whereas in the above two examples there was an immediate—and for the first, still ongoing—impact.
Finally, this may not represent “a deliberate” spread of misinformation but is in my opinion—I think I’m still entitled to that—highly regrettable and irresponsible online behaviour from PAP politicians Seah Kian Peng and K Shanmugam.
After the founders of New Naratif (Kirsten Han, Sonny Liew and PJ Thum) and Wham met Mahathir in August last year, Seah alleged that they invited “Dr M to bring democracy to Singapore”. Shanmugam promptly shared Seah’s post.
This led to a torrent of abuse and death threats against them by the PAP’s IB (Internet Brigade), the group in Singapore that most resembles Trump’s “very fine people”. It is unclear if this amorphous group has any direct link to the party, but the party has never distanced itself from them and they have never been punished for their vile words.
Let me reproduce here some choice misogynistic gems:
A “Clement Goh” posted WW2 photographs of French women who had their hair cut publicly after being accused of being Nazi collaborators, with the caption: “Wonder how she [Han] looks with her hair cut in public…save the stalks for the men.” (Many of the French were wrongly accused. I doubt “Clement” saw the irony.)
A “Nigel Lim” referred to “4 traitors and 1 fat female traitor who looks like she has down syndrome”
A “Christopher Sow” said “that woman look like a crazy *pig emoji*.”
(If you ever want a taste of everything that’s wrong with discourse in this country, go loiter online amid the PAP’s most diehard fans.)
Seah, in all his Trumpian decorum, thanked those who agreed with his views, while saying: “It is regretful that I see all kinds of abusive remarks that are made by many different individuals (and trolls) against each other.” Implying, of course, that all sides are to blame. What Seah did not do is apologise for or retract his comments (still online here).
The problem is that Seah misrepresented them. They never invited “Dr M to bring democracy to Singapore”. What Thum said in his Facebook post is that “I urged [Mahathir] to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of information.”
Seah’s and Shanmugam’s argument, as laid out by the latter’s press secretary, is that by saying “Southeast Asia” Thum actually meant “Singapore”.
There are at least three reasons why this doesn’t hold up:
– Singapore (population 5m) is one tiny city in South-east Asia (>600m)
– There are numerous other South-east Asian countries—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam—that are far less democratic than Singapore. Even assuming the 93-year old Mahathir is able to morph into some freedom fighter, why would he start in Singapore?
– The majority of Singaporeans don’t like Mahathir. He could never plausibly “bring democracy” here.
Seah’s and Shanmugam’s reasoning is a bit like a New Yorker believing that a reference to “North America” must mean New York; or a Londoner believing that a reference to Europe must mean “London”. (Oops.)
Many have suggested that it was wrong for those Singaporeans to meet Mahathir. I find this puzzling. As its coverage attests, New Naratif is trying to build a business that focusses on the whole of South-east Asia. How can Singaporean media outfits grow if we prevent them from meeting our neighbours’ leaders? If you think that I am naive and that Malaysia and New Naratif are actually in cahoots and guilty of sedition, hmmm…see Exhibit A above.
When Han et al lodged a complaint about Seah and Shanmugam with the prime minister, he did the only thing you might expect him to: he referred the case to the minister of home affairs and law—yup, Shanmugam #ownselfcheckownself
Three other articles in this series: