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Even before Donald Trump’s candidacy turned from joke to reality, people were worried about social media and its many problems. Pundits and commentators fretted about polarised views, echo chambers, clickbait reporting and more. Then, out of the turmoil of the 2016 US presidential election and Trump’s victory, came the latest buzzword(s): “fake news”.
A term catches on
Suddenly, the term was everywhere, applied to situations ranging from malicious and petty to valid and worrying. While Trump gleefully labelled any news coverage he didn’t like as “fake”, governments elsewhere grappled with the spread of misinformation online, and how it distorted people’s worldviews and affected communities.
Singapore has been no exception. “As a multi-racial and multi-religious country, disinformation campaigns and fake news can erode trust between various groups, and this can be exploited by external parties,” said Amrin Amin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Home Affairs, during the budget debate in March 2017.
In June 2017, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam gave the opening address at a forum on truth and trust in the media. He outlined foreign interference, racial and religious tensions, and confusion spread by WhatsApp rumours as part of the problem. “Legislative action… seems a no-brainer,” he concluded. “Hopefully, we will have it in place next year or so.”
But Shanmugam did not present a new bill to Parliament in January 2018. Instead, he introduced a Green Paper on deliberate online falsehoods put together by the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Communications and Information. A Select Committee has been convened to examine the issue and is inviting public feedback until February 28.
Individuals as the “first line of defence”
Legislation has not been the only solution offered up in the discussion of “fake news”. In that June 2017 speech, Shanmugam identified the need to “make society more resilient” via media literacy education and critical thinking. This echoed the speech made by Senior Minister of State for Defence Mohamad Maliki bin Osman during the 2017 budget debate, where he described individuals as the “first line of defence” in combatting “fake news” by being “discerning and responsible with what we read and decide to share online.”
Media literacy education has been on Singapore’s radar for quite some time; it was identified in 2003 as an important aspect of turning Singapore into a “global media city”. Yet researchers point out that holistic media literacy education might still be lacking. “Regardless of its presence in the recent policy discourse and the emphasis given to the twenty-first century teacher education in the NIE, media literacy is still an unclear concept given the various operating interpretations in the local educational setting,” wrote Lin Tzu-Bin, Intan Azura Mokhtar and and Wang Li-Yi in their 2013 paper “The construct of media and information literacy in Singapore education system: global trends and local policies” in the Asia Pacific Journal of Education.
There is no media literacy curriculum in Singaporean schools. Instead, skills relevant to media literacy exist as components of other subjects and lessons. Social Studies teachers, for example, drill students in answering source-based questions. Through these exam-oriented exercises, students are taught to compare and corroborate different sources, analyse semiotics and consider hidden (or not-so-hidden) agendas. The English language syllabus also includes the teaching of competencies, such as critical reading, that fall under the umbrella of media literacy.
“The problem here is that media literacy education becomes too narrowly defined…”
Then there’s the focus on cyber wellness, which highlights the risks and dangers of digital spaces while encouraging individuals to adopt responsible practices. “Be a smart digital citizen,” says the government-appointed Media Literacy Council (MLC) on its website. The Council goes on to emphasise values like empathy, graciousness, respect and integrity. Resources provided include advice on combating cyber-bullying, online safety, dealing with trolls and dealing with screen addiction.
“[P]ublic education seems to be infused with a protectionist rationale that aims to educate citizens, especially youth, about the harmful or hurtful experiences that their engagement with media can trigger, either for themselves or for others through their behaviour. Such ethical considerations are one important aspect of media literacy as espoused by leading scholars and educators internationally. However, they seem to predominate the spirit of public education initiatives led by the MLC, with the majority of their resources and programs targeting responsible media use and cyber wellness,” writes Csilla Weninger, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, in her 2017 paper “Media literacy education in Singapore: Connecting theory, policy and practice”.
“The problem here is that media literacy education becomes too narrowly defined, thus restricting education initiatives that target media use as an avenue for expression and collaborative action,” she adds.
What about participation?
The concept of media literacy has evolved, with many scholars shifting their attention towards the use of media as an everyday social activity that facilitates involvement in wider civic and political life. But in Singapore, an overly-narrow focus on cyber wellness and civility online positions individuals as consumers of the media, while neglecting their role as active producers in an era where smartphones and gadgetry make it easy to snap photos, shoot videos and author posts.
This cannot be divorced from the national political reality. Singapore was ranked 69 out of 167 countries in the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2017 Democracy Index. Described by the EIU as a “flawed democracy”, it has a government that wields significant influence over many aspects of its citizens’ lives, including over the media that they consume and the setting of “OB (out of bounds) markers” in national discourse.
“These political factors [top-down political decision-making as well as limitations on press freedom and free speech] favour a media literacy approach that aims to protect rather than empower, one that appeals to the social values of responsibility and harmony as opposed to rights and contention. In other words, mediated forms of agency and expression are supported insofar as they reinforce social and political stability… but not as potential sites of an alternative public,” Weninger writes.
“Their social media experience is a consciously frivolous one”
The result is a country whose people are adept in media production, but who produce content that fails to engage with current affairs. “Most of my students, when they first come to me, are not even interested in any kind of reading beyond what they gorge on via their preferred social media platforms,” says Kevin Seah, a private tutor specialising in English, English literature and the A Level General Paper. “Their social media experience is a consciously frivolous one—their friends who engage with socio-political issues on social media are seen as a little bit strange.”
This disconnect between media production and political participation was made particularly stark when the government paid prominent Instagram users to promote the country’s upcoming budget. The result was a series of posed photos with prepared #sponsored captions calling for public feedback; an awkward juxtaposition of Insta-pretty pensive portraits with efforts to get people interested in a serious political issue. The campaign attracted widespread mockery.
“[H]ow can you get someone that doesn’t even understand the fundamentals of your product to explain it to the masses?” asked public relations director Wesley Gunter on LinkedIn.
What’s missing… is a critical engagement with society and politics
There are, of course, opportunities for young Singaporeans to gain production skills that would enable participation in public discourse via various media. Singaporean students are encouraged to achieve competency in activities like producing videos or coding. Yet these activities are often framed in the context of particular national goals.
In 2011, Lim Sun Sun, Elmie Nekmat and Shobha Vadrevu did a case study of the N.E.mation! competition, an animation competition linked to Singapore’s National Education programme, which is open to Singaporean and Permanent Resident students from secondary schools, junior colleges and centralised institutions. They found that while the competition encouraged media production, emphasis continued to be put on messages the government sought to communicate through the National Education curriculum.
“[V]ideos that explicitly convey policy-friendly messages are privileged over those that are more technically superior with less explicit national education messages,” they observed. In this way, the participatory potential of media production is subsumed under over-arching state narratives. What’s missing, then, is a critical engagement with society and politics.
It doesn’t help that students are often conscious and wary of the limitations on free speech in the country. “I’ve… seen too many students who have a remarkable fear of getting the ‘wrong answer’ in whatever academic setting they’re in,” says Seah. “When thinking about politics, they are even more afraid: some of them ask me whether they’d ‘get in trouble’ if they write ‘the wrong thing’, whatever that is, in their essays.”
While Singapore has neither been the target of entrepreneurial (if morally agnostic) Macedonian teenagers running “fake news” content farms nor well-resourced misinformation campaigns, the issue has already entered the public consciousness. The government asserts that Singapore is an attractive target for foreign meddlers, arguing that measures need to be put in place before any such incident occurs. “The [g]overnment’s fear is very real, particularly since the next General Election is less than three years away,” says media consultant and trainer Lau Joon-Nie.
“We do not want a heavy-handed approach that will root out constructive, though at times disagreeable voices”
It’s a complex situation with no obvious solution. The need for legislation is controversial; while Law Minister Shanmugam might think of it as a “no-brainer”, others have raised concerns of greater curbs on free speech. “We do not want a heavy-handed approach that will root out constructive, though at times disagreeable voices,” said Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun in his parliamentary speech. That the country already has laws dealing with inciting hostility, defamation, hoaxes and even “wounding religious feelings” has not escaped notice.
The call for better media literacy is much less contentious and could form common ground from which to proceed.
“While institutions of higher learning are already offering courses on digital literacy and ‘fake news’ tools, more can be done in the younger age groups from as young as pre-school,” says Lau. “While there are external training providers which offer talks and courses to primary, secondary schools and junior colleges, media literacy topics such as media discernment, safe surfing and online etiquette ought to be incorporated into the school curriculum as a life-long skill.”
It’s a shift in pedagogy that might require a more fundamental reform in the education system. “[M]edia education production programmes should not be dominated by activities that transmit technical skills but pay equal emphasis to both technical competencies and critical literacy,” wrote Lim, Nekmat and Vadrevu. “However, such efforts need to proceed in tandem with overarching institutional changes in the educational system where the top-down, transmission mode of instruction is gradually transformed into a more level, participatory style of learning.”
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