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Pulse
1 May 2023

No one would dispute the fact that our world today is conflicted and dangerous. It is a world that is plagued by wars, pestilence, unrest, famine and poverty.

In addition to the chaos is the presence of the phenomenon of fake news, whose purveyors seek to sow the seeds of distrust which have the capacity to undermine the role of civil authorities and polarise societies. In fact, the current global turmoil has proven to be fertile soil for the plague of disinformation to thrive.

Take, for example, the Covid-19 pandemic. This scourge, which emerged in 2020 and which has claimed millions of lives, has generated both mis- and disinformation about its origins, spread, control and treatment, and the responses by the scientific community and governments have not been spared of the same fate.

The problem of misinformation is so serious and dangerous that the World Health Organisation stressed that if the world is to fight the disease successfully, it must also fight an ‘infodemic.’

Misinformation on the pandemic was followed shortly after by a rash of articles, videos and commentaries advancing disinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. These include the assertions that the mRNA vaccines could irreversibly alter the DNA of their recipients and that these vaccines are linked to autism.

In Singapore, local websites such as ‘Truth Warriors’ have posted misleading and unverified information about Covid-19 vaccines. Some of these websites have also published articles which made the baseless claim that Ivermectin is a safe and effective drug for early treatment of Covid-19.

In a study published in Nature, researchers used data from Twitter, Facebook, and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the link between online misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in the United States. After analysing 55 million tweets, they found a direct correlation between misinformation and vaccine uptake – when misinformation rose, vaccine uptake decreased.

Even after taking into account other factors such as the political commitments and demography of the participants, the researchers could conclude that ‘[a]ssociations between vaccine outcomes and misinformation remain significant when accounting for political as well as demographic and socioeconomic factors.’

The final example of mis- or disinformation is related to the whole debate on climate change. Studies in the United States have shown that although disinformation is not the only reason behind climate change denial, it is nonetheless a major contributor. Some of this disinformation are funded by the fossil fuel industry as well as by private philanthropy.

Fake news is a problem that governments, societies and individuals ignore only to their own detriment. It is a phenomenon that must be recognised for what it is and what it is capable of doing. And it is a scourge that must be addressed and combatted at many different levels.

AN ANATOMY OF FAKE NEWS

Scholars have identified three types of fake news: (1) serious fabrications in the media; (2) hoaxes; (3) satire and parody. The most concerning kinds of fake news are those that belong to the first two categories.

The literature has also identified seven types of actors that are initiators and spreaders of fake news: jokers, scammers, interest-driven entities, conspiracy theorists, ‘insiders’ (namely, people who claim false credentials), celebrities, family and friends.

This suggests that the phenomenon is highly complex and that not all fake news should be treated in the same way since their originators’ motivations and objectives can be vastly different. Furthermore, while fake news themselves are not something totally new, the advent and rapid expansion of digitalisation and online platforms have aided their spread and enabled them to more effectively disguise themselves as real news.

Research has shown that misinformation not only spreads much faster than real news, it also reaches a wider audience. In addition, the sophistication with which false information is fabricated and presented has made it more difficult to identify.

One of the most important causes of confusion in the dissemination of information to the general public is the rising presence of ‘insiders.’ These actors claim to be ‘insiders’ by presenting false credentials in order to lend credence to the misinformation they are peddling.

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic there were myriad articles and messages on the internet and social media about coronavirus treatments and cures as well preventive measures. Many of these articles claim authority from Taiwanese doctors, Japanese scientists, and the Stanford hospital board when in fact they did not have the endorsement of the experts cited.

The problem of fake news is unfortunately sometimes exacerbated by the mainstream media, which is supposed to be the ‘harness’ of the truth. This happens when the media seeks to advance some vested political or economic interests – when it is supposed to inform and educate the public through objective and responsible reporting and analysis – thereby undermining public interest.

This is seen especially in a form of rhetorically-based deception called the spin. In an article entitled ‘Political Persuasion During Times of Crisis’, Morgen Johansen and Mark Joslyn explain that ‘Spinners mislead by means that range from subtle omissions to outright lies. Spin paints a false picture of reality by bending the facts, mischaracterising the words of others, ignoring or denying crucial evidence, or just “spinning a yarn” – by making things up.’

All this has eroded public trust in the mainstream media. According to a Harvard-Harris poll conducted in the United States in 2017, nearly two-thirds of the respondents are of the view that mainstream press is full of fake news.

The lack of public trust in mainstream media only complexifies the already challenging and difficult battle against misinformation.

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS

Christians should of course be very concerned about the spread of falsehoods and lies in the media. This is because we are called to worship and serve the God who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).

There are a number of Scriptural injunctions for God’s people to speak and uphold the truth. Proverbs states that ‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight’ (12:22). Paul enjoins the Christians at Ephesus to put away falsehood and to ‘speak the truth with his neighbour’ (4:25).

Everyone has the responsibility to be vigilant and to guard against being the consumer and spreader of mis- or disinformation. This can be done by continually demanding and seeking high standards in journalism and reporting.

Educating the public to distinguish between the different genres also goes a long way in keeping misinformation at bay. For example, it is important for readers to understand the difference between news, which reports the facts of an event, and analysis, which examines the reasons why an event had occurred and its possible implications.

The public must also learn to distinguish between the news reported by well-established agencies such as CNN and BBC, and what may be described as ‘citizen journalism’ – the reporting and analysis of news by the general public, which is usually not subjected to pre-publication vetting. The latter is often the prime source of mis- and disinformation.

It is also important that the public consult a variety of reliable news sources. This is because there is really no such thing as an ‘unbiased’ view. It is common knowledge that even established providers of news such as The New York Times or The Guardian have their peculiar political and philosophical commitments and biases.

I mentioned earlier that because fake news is such a complex phenomenon, it must be addressed at various levels. Individuals, social media providers, as well as the government must join hands in the fight against misinformation. In order to do this, governments must enact new and effective laws that target the spread of misinformation.

In 2018, the Singapore Government appointed a Parliamentary Committee to study the spread of misinformation and deliberate online falsehood.

In its written response to the government’s invitation to participate in this nationwide consultation, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) clearly states that it supports the enactment of new laws as a measure to counter fake news. ‘There is clearly a very delicate balance between freedom of information and national security’, NCCS adds. ‘Nevertheless, such legislations are worth considering, especially if they are complemented by … non-legislative measures …’

In 2019, the Singapore Government introduced the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which enables authorities to address and stop the spread of fake news.

As anticipated, Western agencies and international human rights bodies reacted negatively to POFMA. International human rights groups have criticised the law as a threat to free speech, while the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right of freedom of opinion and expression took issue with POFMA’s legal appeals process.

To be sure, governments and the legal systems are not infallible. This means that laws which were enacted for the right reasons can be used for ignoble ends by an unscrupulous government. Citizens, however, must place their trust in the government that they have democratically elected.

To repeat: to address the plague of mis- and disinformation and the serious damage that it can cause to societal peace and wellbeing requires responsible action from every sector of society.

In a culture which suffers from acute epistemic poverty – where truth is either denigrated or ignored – we must constantly urge one another never to acquiesce to falsehood, but rather to be seekers of the truth. For only the truth can and will set us free! (John 8:31-32).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.