Opinion: Veteran journalists call for better fact-checking by social platform owners


In Singapore, news around the POFMA office instructing independent news sites to remove content has made headlines. Just yesterday, the Singapore government ordered Facebook to disable Singapore users' access to the National Times Singapore (NTS) Facebook page for “communicating at least three false statements of fact”. This comes following the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Trade and Industry issuing correction directions to separate groups of people, who posted and shared fake news online regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020.

Globally, social media players have also taken additional steps to implement fact checking measures to curb the spread of fake news. On 11 May, Twitter introduced new labels and warning messages with the aim of providing additional context and information on tweets containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19. According to Twitter, action will be based on three broad categories:

  • Misleading information: Statements or assertions that have been confirmed to be false or misleading by subject-matter experts, such as public health authorities;
  • Disputed claims: Statements or assertions in which the accuracy, truthfulness, or credibility of the claim is contested or unknown;
  • Unverified claims — information (which could be true or false) that is unconfirmed at the time it is shared.

Similarly, Instagram too rolled out its fact-checking program globally in December 2019 to combat the increasing photo and video-based spread of misinformation. The Facebook-owned photo sharing medium first began working with third-party fact-checkers in the US in May last year, to identify, review, and label false information.

However, the move hasn't necessarily impressed everyone with US President Donald Trump recently signing an executive order targetted at social media companies for policing content. Trump's decision on an executive order stemmed from an incident where Twitter placed a fact-check label on his tweet on 26 May where he tweeted that mail-in ballots for the upcoming presidential election in November "will be anything less than substantially fraudulent", and that mail boxes "will be robbed, ballots will be forged and even illegally printed out and fraudulently signed". The fact-check label reads "Get the facts about mail-in ballots", and users who click on it will be taken to a Twitter Moments page that contains news from sources such as The Washington Post, CNN and NBC News, and fact-checks regarding Trump's claims.

With the rise of digital, netizen journalism and social conversations, journalists today often turn to online platforms and chatter to hunt for news. As such, the move was lauded by veteran journalists Marketing spoke who said that social media companies have the responsibility to moderate and fact-check content given its increasing presence in people's lives.

clare rewcastle brown

Speaking to Marketing, British investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown said platforms such as Twitter often allow people to say things and doesn’t censor them particularly if they are political. Simply put, "if you have a wacky view, you have a wacky view," she said. However, she was quick to add that if someone says something that is a documented lie, it is fair that the content is moderated with a comment advising people to check out the reality of the situation. "I think that’s a very rational way of handling lying politicians," she said. 

Rewcastle-Brown, who is also the founder and journalist of Sarawak Report, vital to the expose of the 1MDB scandal, explained that she previously reached out to Facebook regarding sponsored posts that were promoting lies against her, while working on the expose.She added: “It’s one thing to let someone lie on your platform, but you’re taking money for it then you’re publishing that lie and you’re not just a host, you’re a publisher.”

eugene wong

Agreeing with Rewcastle-Brown’s stance on social media moderation, Eugene Wong, executive director and group CEO of Sin Chew Media Corporation explained that fact checking and content verification is the bare minimum social responsibility that social media companies need to undertake. This same rule applies to news media publishers. According to Wong, "hate speeches with racist undertones are spread across social media by politicians and their cyber troopers and these remain key contributors to the polarisation and racism currently ongoing around the world." He added:

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences.

"Many either confuse or knowingly take advantage of this [lack of fact checking], allowing irresponsible politicians to continue playing their rhetoric cards under the pretense of their so-called freedom of speech,” he explained. This proves to be the single largest challenge for social media, he explained.

pn balji

Meanwhile, media industry veteran and former editor of Today, PN Balji said the journalist's job is to present as accurate a report as possible, and fact checking is an essential part of this process.

But in the real world, with deadline pressure and newsmakers not always being open to talking to the media, it is not possible for every publication to get all the facts 100% right. Hence, as a journalist, he strongly supports the move of social media companies fact checking tweets or posts. There must be an attempt to provide a fair, balanced and truthful report, Balji said adding:

Every media platform worth its salt must not resist that.

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