Be cautious about drafting new laws, because they could "backfire" when exploited by people acting in bad faith.
That point was emphasised by Hong Kong-based Singaporean media professor Cherian George, who was in Parliament on Tuesday, March 27 to present evidence before Singapore's Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.
In the course of his one hour and 15 minute-long hearing, George urged the Committee to be cautious about introducing new legislation to combat such falsehoods, or fake news, as they are widely referred to as. He said:
"When drafting law, never think about how you would use it, think about how it would be used by your worst enemy."
Laws may need to be "first resort" in some cases
The need for further legislation was discussed in-depth by George and Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary.
Janil referred to previous testimony by Goh Yihan, dean of SMU's law school, quoting him saying that the current legal framework "leaves significant gaps":
"I hope you'll accept that there are some situations where interventions will be necessary and will require legal powers to do so."
George acknowledged that the law will from time to time have to be "the first resort" in clear cases of incitement to violence.
He gave the theoretical example of a politician or a preacher who might say there is "no room" for a certain community.
However, George added his view that it would be better to update existing laws to address technological advancements, instead of outlawing certain currently-legal classes of speech:
"We are on safer ground if we update our laws to take into account new modalities."
Repeal law against wounding of religious & racial feelings
George said that "no matter how well-written", laws could backfire.
He highlighted the fact that organised hate groups elsewhere in the world have "weaponised" otherwise-well-intentioned laws originally put in place to deter people from wounding religious feelings or other forms of discrimination.
"Groups manufacture indignation and then demand that the state uphold its insult laws by punishing the individuals and groups accused of causing offence."
He gave the example of a country with a Sunni-majority population that could theoretically use legislation to persecute a Shia-minority population, and said the tactic of deliberately taking offence is a "global phenomenon".
George cited Section 298 of the Penal Code as an example of a potentially-exploitable law Singapore currently has, and suggested repealing it.
George believed that such laws were "more a problem than a solution", saying there were no guarantees that it will not be used as a tool by majority groups within a society to attack smaller ones, or hate groups to target moderates.
He voiced his belief that Singapore perhaps has a "problem of success", in that our society has not had to deal with organised hate groups prevalent elsewhere.
He urged the Committee to look outside Singapore, saying candidly that he does not "expect (Section 298) to be repealed", but hopes they can consider it for the long-term.
"All I am counselling is that the new law does not include any section that rides on Section 298 specifically, on the wounding of racial and religious relations, because the evidence overwhelmingly around the world is that it causes more problems than it solves."
Addressing the point, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said that it was not in the remit of the Select Committee to review the Penal Code, but he would pass on these views to his colleagues in the Law Ministry who are doing just that.
Gaming the system
George added that it was important to think "two, three steps ahead," because takedown laws aimed at removing falsehoods could backfire when exploited by hate groups.
He cited the example of Jihad Watch, a blog which the Council on American-Islamic relations has described as a "hate entity."
For a long time, searching "Jihad" in Google would bring up Jihad Watch near the top of search results.
However, Google recently changed its algorithms such that searching "Jihad" would bring up legitimate Muslim websites explaining the term.
In response, the blog "milked this for publicity", saying that it was a sign that Google had "bowed to Muslim pressure."
George noted that such hate groups therefore "game the system":
"You put in a counter-measure, they counter you with propaganda... The moment the government comes after them, they point to it, to play the victim and increase support for themselves."
Janil then said legislative change is not the be-all and end-all, but rather the whole ecosystem, including public education and media literacy. George replied that he was "glad to hear that".
The need to improve political literacy
George pointed out that while the Select Committee and other witnesses had spoken about media literacy in previous hearings, they spoke less about political literacy.
He was convinced that political literacy or civic education was crucial in combating falsehoods, observing that neglecting to do so has caused problems elsewhere in the world:
"The US and Europe dropped the ball."
George said that the basic principle of democracy needed to be highlighted, in that it was not just a numbers game, but also about protection of the rights of minorities.
George cited the example of Germany as a country which for "obvious reasons" invested the most in civic education, and as a result, was the most resilient against falsehoods.
Responding to his comment, Shanmugam said lightheartedly that when he previously suggested something similar, there was "much unhappiness".
(By the way, the minister may have been referring to a suggestion he made in Dec. 2009, reported by The Straits Times in Jan. 2010, where he said comparative political systems could be taught in schools to create a "better-informed" citizenry.)
One thing Minister Shanmugam mentioned during George's hearing might hint at the policy proposal he has in mind at the end of all this, though. He said:
"It has got to include a very substantial amount of media literacy education, an approach of bringing a much better understanding to the people the risks, and the ability to understand what is true and false. But underpinned with a legal framework that gives the necessary powers to intervene."
You can watch George's full appearance before the Committee here:
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Top image via screen shot from Channel NewsAsia.