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Fake news spreads faster than articles correcting them: Expert

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Witness tells court blogger's post with 'shocking' allegations on PM Lee would have appeared on Facebook news feeds of 11,749 users

An expert witness yesterday told the High Court that a Facebook post sharing an article with "shocking" allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would have spread more quickly than articles correcting the fake news.

Dr Phan Tuan Quang from the Hong Kong University Business School, testifying at the defamation trial against blogger Leong Sze Hian, had estimated that Mr Leong's post would have appeared on the Facebook news feeds of 11,749 users.

The virality of Mr Leong's post, which contained a link to an article falsely connecting PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, came under scrutiny as PM Lee watched in the courtroom on the second day of the hearing.

Dr Phan, an associate professor of innovation and information management with 15 years of research experience on social media under his belt, had said a minimum of 200 to 400 Singaporeans would have accessed the post and the article.

These were very conservative estimates that took into account factors like the Government's rebuttals of the article which had been widely published by news outlets, he added.

But Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean said the figures were questionable as Dr Phan "had hardly any data, or evidence to work on, and your entire report is based on a series of assumptions".


Disagreeing, Dr Phan said his estimates were based on public Facebook data and statistical analysis.

"What I'm presenting is both public research and expert comments and views on how many people might have seen the post... It's not baseless."

Owing to the "shocking" nature of the allegations - the article had said that PM Lee was "corrupted" and had allowed the banks here to abet former Malaysian premier Najib Razak in money laundering - the post and article would have been novel to people, said Dr Phan.

Researchers have found this "novelty" factor contributes to the virality of fake news, he added.

Mr Lim countered that the long-running 1MDB saga had been covered in the news extensively and could not have been novel by the time Mr Leong shared the article.

To this, Dr Phan said: "It is novel because of the connection with Mr Lee... "

Dr Phan said that based on his research, fake news moves faster than real news and can reach a "maximum penetration" in 1,000 minutes, or about 16 hours. This means a particular post by a person can reach his friends and friends of his friends, all the way down a chain that is 15 levels removed from him in that time.

Mr Lim then referred to news reports about government agencies and officials refuting the allegations, asking Dr Phan if people who saw Mr Leong's post might have seen the news reports and been aware that the article is bogus.

Yes, Dr Phan said, adding that he had taken this into consideration in determining the spread of the post. He also agreed with Mr Lim that more people might have seen the rebuttals than Mr Leong's post.

But he said there was reason to believe the people who saw Mr Leong's post may not be the same as those who would have read the rebuttals in the mainstream media. The algorithm of Facebook prioritises content on people's news feeds based on their proclivities, he added.

Dr Phan's independence was also called into doubt yesterday, with Mr Lim saying that since he had previously received research grants from the Singapore Government and its agencies, he could not be said to be independent.

One such grant from the Ministry of Education, awarded to a research team that Dr Phan was a part of when he was a professor at the National University of Singapore from August 2011 to May this year, had come to $8.2 million.

Maintaining that he has no relationship with PM Lee and had never met him in person, Dr Phan said it was common for academics to work on research projects involving government bodies and to get such grants.