on fake news

therealconse

 

Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:

Dear Committee,

There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.

Best wishes,

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer

***

The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.

Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. [1]

Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.[2]

The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.

All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.

Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.

It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.

So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.

And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

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More problems at Singapore’s mainstream media channels

One of the great ironies of modern Singapore’s media development is that even as politicians, establishment supporters and other conservatives continue to heap scorn on internet sites, the mainstream channels keep making mistakes, sometimes egregious ones. It is as if they are doing their utmost to make a mockery of their fans.

2013 proved a particularly horrible year for Singapore’s mainstream media channels, and they have started off 2014 on the same shot-riddled foot. Pointing out these errors is important not in order to have a laugh–although one can hardly blame Singapore’s beleaguered bloggers for indulging in a bit of schadenfreude.

The bigger reason is that, like so many other sacred cows of the Singapore model, media policies here are based on a seemingly immutable national orthodoxy about the role of elites: Singapore society must rely on a tiny, enlightened group of people, rather than the distributed intelligence of all Singaporeans. This belief manifests itself in everything from a government-knows-best attitude to the presumption that our restricted, elite-led mainstream media model is serving our country well. Continue reading