“The episode underscores the need for media outlets to verify their sources to avoid spreading falsehoods, and for readers to examine what they read with a critical eye” (Keep Eyes Open for Fake News, Yuen Sin).
In the fight against misinformation and disinformation, few will disagree with “the need for media outlets to verify their sources to avoid spreading falsehoods, and for readers to examine what they read with a critical eye” (ST, Sept. 2), though perhaps two further points on the “how” should not go unnoticed: First, how should readers – especially with the explosion of news and information – go about reading more critically, and how should media outlets prioritise their stories or verify their sources; and second, what role should the government, also the chief newsmaker in Singapore, play? After all, the false report in the “Australian Teacher Magazine” was but one of two incidents in the past week. The Malaysian Health Ministry, after the death of a Singaporean in a hit-and-run accident in Johor Bahru, has taken issue with claims of treatment delay and payment.
First, encouraging or nurturing critical readers demands time and effort, both of which are in short supply for most busy Singaporeans. The SURE (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate) campaign by the National Library Board, for instance – which seeks to promote information literacy – may be catchy, though it is not clear the extent to which individuals make use of it. Campaigns like this, moreover, contend not only with the limited bandwidth or resources that individuals have, but also cognitively with their heuristics and biases, which make it difficult to change entrenched beliefs, even in light or in spite of new facts. I still maintain that media literacy and education, in the long-term, are more effective and sustainable as compared to straight-up regulation, yet the practical limitations to achieve that ideal must be acknowledged.
In the meantime, Singaporean readers could start by avoiding sites known to peddle mistruths for clicks, and – with higher expectations – to hold publications in the mainstream media to higher standards, by calling out shoddy reporting.
Some of the responsibility, in this vein, should then fall on the media outlets to ensure the veracity of their reports. Most sites should err on the side of caution, even though the appeal of virality and sensationalism can be hard to resist. In the story involving the Australian magazine for teachers, the writers – before reproduction of the quotes – could have approached the writer and the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore. And in the story involving the hit-and-run accident in Malaysia, the media outlets could have reached out to the hospital involved and to the other Singaporeans at the site, to provide a more complete reporting picture. The lack of resources notwithstanding, such endeavours are often shunned, because they take time.
Second, therefore, given that the government is the chief newsmaker in Singapore, even greater efficiency in its provision of information (and data) can be helpful. When the original report in the “Australian Teacher Magazine” was making its rounds, searches in the MOE website and its newsroom yielded no records of the supposed speech or presentation, and the ministry provided the transcript and the video of the conference speech made by the Director-General of Education only after making its “fake news” remarks. In no way does this absolve local news sites of their responsibilities or their commitment to ensure the accuracy of their reports; instead, it creates an environment which makes it costlier for them not to do so.