Let’s avoid calling these 4 things “fake news”

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I fear that fake news will be a convenient label used by people to dismiss views they disagree with instead of engaging them head-on and giving good reasons to substantiate their own arguments. This reduces the quality of public discourse by seemingly eradicating the need for one side to actually engage the other. Here are four examples of what fake news is not.

1. Fake news is not any opinion that you disagree with

This might seem pretty obvious, but when it presents itself in a more indirect way, people seem to fall into the ‘fake news’ trap.

Take for example the Amos Yee asylum saga. The Economist reported that Amos Yee was imprisoned for insulting Lee Kuan Yew. Some netizens responded by criticizing the Economist for spreading lies and fake news, pointing to the fact the the Singapore courts sentenced Amos Yee on the basis of insulting other religions, and not for his political views.

By jumping on the “fake news” bandwagon, what these netizens missed out on was that The Economist and the American judge who decided the case, were not trying to report the Singaporean court’s ruling. What they are saying is that despite what the Singapore court said, Amos Yee was really persecuted for his political beliefs, and not his comments on religion. I am not saying that The Economist, or the American judge was correct. What I am saying is that the issue is not about fake news or real news, but about differing interpretations of agreed facts. Calling them “fake news” distracts us from the real controversy at hand. To be fair though, the other side of the fence was no different:

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This is an example of how jumping too quickly to an accusation of ‘fake news’ can cause two sides to talk past each other. Nobody is putting an effort into understanding each other’s viewpoint; they are more interested in accusing the other side of “fake news”. This reduces the quality of discourse surrounding the issue.

Furthermore, people make accusations of “fake news” incorrectly when what they really mean is “bad journalism”.

2. Fake news is not news that only shows one side of the story

On 8th April, All Singapore Stuff (ASS) published a video and wrote that a policeman stepped on a suspect’s face after arresting him. This is, strictly speaking, true – the policeman in the video was literally stepping on a man’s face. What ASS did not mention, however, was that an eyewitness account indicated that the reason why the police had to act aggressively was because person was previously resisting arrest.

The Independent accused ASS of creating fake news. With respect to the editors of The Independent, this is incorrect. Showing only one side of the story is not fake news, it is simply bad and biased journalism. If we were to define this type of journalism as fake news, then even the Straits Times may run into trouble. Take for example, the coverage of the issue we are discussing right now.

One might argue that it isn’t the one-sidedness of ASS’s post that is the issue, but their motive of trying to undermine confidence in the Singapore Police Force. But if that is the case, then let’s call it what it is – a problem with their motives. Only then can we have a proper discussion of what really is at stake.

To clarify, I am not defending ASS – I think what they do on a daily basis is rather indefensible. I am simply saying that in this particular case, calling their article fake news is incorrect. There is a more accurate and more honest description: bad journalism. I believe it is correct to criticize others when they commit wrongs, but we must do so accurately, and using the right words.

3. Fake news is not manipulating statistics57 in a way that can sensationalize an issue, or misleads readers

This is an example of irresponsible journalism, but to call it fake news is again not calling it what it is.

Even the Straits Times has on occasion been guilty of manipulating statistics in a way that can be misleading to its readers. Take for example the time when the Straits Times reported that our passport was sixth most accepted in the world, even though when you look at the actual statistics, we are not ranked 6th, but actually 21st (at best) given that there are numerous joint rankings from the 1st to 5th.

4. Fake news is not misreporting something

This is again example of shoddy journalism, but to call it fake news, once again, is not calling it what it is. Yet, The Straits Times included a States Times Review (STR) article – which claimed that “SBS made S$1.02 billion profits from collection of public transport fares” – in its list of fake news reports. In fact, SBS made S$1.02 billion in revenue, not profits. STR later corrected the headline.

What was very ironic about The Straits Times accusing STR of producing fake news on the basis of misreporting something, is that not too long ago, the Straits Times misreported that SR Nathan was the first elected president of Singapore. It was in fact Ong Teng Cheong. Was that Straits Times article therefore “fake news”?

Misreporting an issue is an indication of bad journalism, but it is not fake news. Once again, I am NOT defending STR; I am merely saying that in this one instance, it wasn’t a case of “fake news”, and neither was The Straits Times’ article on SR Nathan.

Conclusion

In summary, the label ‘fake news’ is far too overused. If we see bad or irresponsible journalism, we should call it what it is. If we see someone having a different interpretation from us, we must engage it head-on. We shouldn’t throw around the word “fake news” too easily. Doing so is inaccurate, distracting, and lowers the quality of public discourse.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, legal theory and political philosophy.

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