TRANSFORMATION IN THE AGE OF MISINFORMATION

Chairman of the WAN-IFRA APAC Committee, Gary Liu and Committee members

WAN-IFRA COO Thomas Jacob and his APAC team

Fellow colleagues from the media publishing industry in the region

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

         I am happy to join you at the Opening of Publish Asia. I am delighted to see this gathering of industry leaders that is taking place in Singapore after 19 years, and also to extend a very warm welcome our distinguished visitors who have come from across the region.

2          We are living through a kind of “climate change” in the realm of publishing and news, brought about by rising connectivity. The Internet and social media have changed the direction, volume and speed of information flows worldwide. And this has disrupted many industries, and the news publishing industry is not immune to these changes. In a bygone age, people would typically read the newspaper in the morning to catch up on news stories and tune in to radio or TV news broadcasts for updates. Today, we get news fed to us in real time on multiple platforms both online and offline.

3          Social networks now have the capacity to define the public agenda in a much more immediate and global way than ever before. In this digital ecosystem, news has a life of its own, sometimes detached from the media platform it originated from and re-contextualised in consumers’ social media timelines. We see this happening on Facebook’s online environment, in which each user can select his information diet based on the accounts and feeds he chooses to subscribe to. The news that appears on your social media feed can be entirely different from what appears on mine.

4          We are presented with a challenging yet exciting opportunity for the news publishing industry to reinvent itself, and I recognise that all of you are dealing with this challenge even as we have to maintain business propositions. The presentation of news to audiences is undergoing a profound transformation. With news publishing becoming increasingly digital, it is not surprising if many are adopting a “web-centric” approach in organising our work flow, where reporters and editors first think about producing content and multimedia stories for the web, then developing a text story for the print edition. The primary focus is on breaking news and publishing these stories on the web as fast as possible.

5          Gary Liu, CEO of South China Morning Post (SCMP), who is here today, represents a prime example of how news organisations, in this case SCMP, has transformed the legacy newspaper into a modern tech company with a “digital-first” outlook. I can also understand why publishers such as The New York Times and Washington Post have set up continuous news desks with dedicated staff to produce round the clock breaking news for the web. No longer are we confined to the traditional and regular printing and publishing news cycles in a single day or week.

6          However, we also need to confront a complex challenge in the news and information landscape – the prevalence and ease of the spread of misinformation, or deliberate online falsehoods, which is what I would like to talk a little bit about today.

7          As consumers of the media, we are sometimes faced with a certain degree of opacity as we can find it difficult to discern whether what we read is truly representative of the general sentiments at large. Algorithms on social media have been designed to feed consumers with information that they are already likely to be interested in. While the consumer enjoys a more personalised flow of information as a result of this, it may also reinforce proclivities and drive further polarisation of views. Potential bad actors may also find opportunities to accord disproportionate attention to certain types of messages, which are often false or misleading, and inject them into public discourse. They could even use bots to play on the workings of social media platforms to ensure that their voice is heard above all others while still appearing to be a part of the crowd.

8          The approach in tackling the threat of deliberate online falsehoods is even more pertinent in Singapore as a major global city which is highly connected, where many of you have chosen to base your regional offices. We are not alone in facing this challenge – many countries are studying it closely and developing measures to deal with falsehoods. Germany has introduced its Network Enforcement Act, which covers a broad range of content including hate speech, and speech based on falsity, such as criminal defamation and forgery. The UK has released a White Paper expressing how harmful online content and behaviour, including the spread of fake news, could be dealt with. This is a new arena for most of us and the effectiveness of these solutions remain to be seen.

9          In Singapore, we are well aware that we are especially vulnerable to the threat of misinformation, given our multiracial, multi-religious makeup with a high mobile and internet penetration rate. We have fault lines that can be easily exploited. We need to protect ourselves but also take a reasonable and balanced approach in dealing with the issue.

10          Sri Lanka’s recent experience is notable. The fear that the horrific bombing incidents over Easter could exacerbate underlying tensions between different religious groups in the country compelled the government to shut down access altogether to all major social media networks. In other words, the assessment of risk was too great that they turned to such extreme measures.

11          In the fight against misinformation, everyone has an important role to play – the Government, the news industry and the community.

The Government

12          The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMB) was introduced in Parliament last month. Without pre-empting the debate in Parliament on this Bill this afternoon, this Bill is our pragmatic response to the changes in the online space. It has now become necessary for us to deal with the threat of online falsehoods through legislation, along with other measures. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. In fact, it would be remiss of the government to not swiftly stem the spread and counter the effects of misinformation directed by malicious actors.

13          That said, legislation complements – and does not replace – our suite of tools to deal with deliberate online falsehoods. A well-informed and discerning public is our first, and most important line of defence. In fact, a large part of our efforts are devoted to public education efforts to strengthen information and media literacy.

14          There are various ongoing public education efforts, including NLB’s Source. Understand. Research. Evaluate. (SURE) Programme to help citizens be more aware of the dangers as well as to help them discern the information they consume. We will continue to strengthen these efforts to ensure that they remain relevant and catered to the evolving threats and needs of the various segments of the population.

15          We are also developing a National Framework on Information and Media Literacy, which will help to align public education efforts.

16          In addition, the Government has a fact-checking website, Factually, that provides the public with accurate information on Government policies or issues that are of interest to the public.

News Publishing Industry

17          All of you in the news publishing industry also have a pivotal role to play in this effort. You are faced with the immense challenge of developing a distinct voice that cuts through the noise out there in order to sustain your audience’s attention. And I know that this is no easy feat.

18          You are also faced with a growing audience that is discerning or even sceptical about what they read. In fact, we see consumers increasingly seeking out credible sources for their daily dose of quality content. Publishers such as The Guardian, which prides itself on its independent journalism, are attracting more eyeballs from consumers who are keen to feed on in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces that ensure that the facts have been presented accurately.

19          News is more than just data and facts; it is information that affects us. News affect how we live our lives, how we perform at our jobs, how we make day to day decisions and how we make sense of the world around us. This is precisely why trusted news sources are more important than ever.

20          An important antidote to deliberate online falsehoods is quality journalism. In this era where we are inundated with news from various news sources, it should not be a race just to capture eyeballs. In fact, what we need to ensure, especially as news publishers, editors and journalists, is to uphold the ideals and high standards of the profession through credible news reporting. And we know that there is a market and a desire for this among readers. People need to be assured that the news stories that you present have been carefully researched, verified, presented objectively and remain untainted. It is also important to use innovative technologies, as many of you have, to get news messages out to the public quickly without diminishing its quality and accuracy. As you organise the news content on your platforms, remember that you have the power to decide what news to present to your audience, and curate a more balanced set of content for all.

21          What could you do to sustain a responsible and reliable media environment? I am sure that this is something that you as media professionals are deliberating on, and I am sure that this conference will contribute to this discourse. I will offer you a few ways. First, invest in your people and your newsrooms, to ensure that your newsrooms continue to be staffed with trained and experienced journalists and editors, including professionals with important emerging skills such as data analytics. You need that combination of journalistic instincts and technological know-how in order to navigate and thrive in this new era. Second, encourage your team to upgrade their skills so that they will be able to remain relevant and responsive to what lies ahead in the industry. Every industry across the economy is being disrupted by technology and digitalisation. The challenge is how well we adapt and how we work between organisations and employees to ensure that we are well–positioned for the challenges today and to be able to anticipate the challenges of tomorrow. Finally, it is useful to constantly remind your team that in the midst of delivering news expediently to your audience, they should never compromise on its accuracy and credibility. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of credible, accurate news sources, especially when we are dealing with a plethora of options through the Internet, which can generate much noise, much heat, but often very little light.

The Community

22          I want to also emphasise the role of the community in the effort of combatting deliberate online falsehoods. It is a whole-of-nation effort. The suite of efforts by the Government and the news industry alone will not be enough. It is also important to have ground-up initiatives aimed at strengthening digital literacy among various segments, including youths and seniors. I am glad that there have been several efforts to do so in Singapore, and we are continuing to support many.

23          Early this year, the Media Literacy Council in Singapore launched several new fact-checking resource toolkits at its annual Better Internet Conference. The “Get Smart with Sherlock” fact-checking starter kit provides the public with information to understand the issue of online falsehoods and advice to stem the spread. Based on the fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, this toolkit features his attempts to solve the crime of fake news, while guiding his audience on doing so, through accessible language. MLC has also partnered with Common Sense Education to develop a toolkit targeted at teachers and students, comprising a series of lesson plans and worksheets that not only teaches students to evaluate the credibility of news resources, but also equips them with strategies to distinguish facts from opinions.

24          With the hope of encouraging more community efforts that promote digital readiness, including strengthening digital literacy of Singaporeans, a Digital Readiness track has been established under MCCY’s Our Singapore Fund, announced earlier this year. I am glad to see that several groups have come forward to kick-start initiatives to promote computational thinking among young children and encourage the use of technology to improve people’s daily lives. I look forward to many more of such innovative, ground-up efforts to promote digital literacy in our society.

25          To underscore the need for Singaporeans to be alert in dealing with online information and defending themselves against online threats, in February this year, we launched Digital Defence as the sixth pillar of Total Defence, with the call to all Singaporeans to be secure, alert and responsible online.

26          I am very glad to see how the news industry has stepped up to actively build up the public’s resistance to misinformation through media literacy efforts as well. I commend SPH’s efforts in areas such as raising the public awareness of the negative consequences of falsehoods through actively publishing reports and commentaries on this issue, welcoming and responding to requests by readers to verify the information that they come across online, and organising public talks to educate readers on how they could spot fake news. In addition, a fake news hackathon was also organised with Google, NUS, SUTD and the Media Literacy Council in 2017. The hackathon culminated in some promising ideas that SPH and Google are working on together to develop further.

27          I am sure that there are many other examples of how those among you have participated in or initiated efforts to build media literacy among your audiences. I strongly encourage more to come forward to sustain the momentum and enthusiasm for this effort.

28          I want to conclude by reiterating the fact that while technology is disrupting the news industry, I think it also presents us with the unparalleled opportunity to redefine the way we communicate and convey the news and how that, in turn, can help to inform readers, and ensure that they are able to be discerning, and make discerning judgements of arguments that are being made, and for them to draw their own conclusions. I want to conclude by applauding the efforts of everyone in the room today and your contributions to building the news industry across Asia. To our publishing and media partners who are situated here in Singapore, we welcome your presence and look forward to continue working closely with you to tap on the opportunities that are available here and in the region. Technology adoption rates are perhaps among the highest in our part of the world, and I think the work that we do and the deliberations at this conference will have an important impact in how we are able to participate in and shape the evolution of these trends. I wish all of you a successful and productive Publish Asia. Thank you.

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