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People, more than governments, can defeat fake news

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Freedom of speech and expression needed to ensure falsehoods and misinformation are exposed

The threat of fake news poses serious threats to the democratic well-being of societies.

The functioning of a democracy is premised on citizens having a shared reality rather than multiple distorted realities.

"Deep fakes", the artificial intelligence-powered imitation of speech and images to make someone appear to say or do things he never said or did, can further erode trust in society.

The use of algorithms and data sets to determine who should receive different targeted messages and advertisements means online falsehoods can be aimed at individuals.

Countries have been affected by attempts to influence public opinion, undermine social cohesion, influence elections, create public panic and incite violence through falsehoods.

Hence, it would be imprudent for any society to underestimate the threat posed by campaigns to sow falsehoods.

We need to recognise the threat for what it is, but it must not cripple us. If our way of life is detrimentally impacted, then those who seek to do us harm would have succeeded.

As there are many types of falsity, the focus of any legislation should be on curbing the spread of false or misleading information resulting from a coordinated effort as matter of statecraft by a foreign entity or for the private purposes of making profits.

Judicial oversight is crucial if the authorities are to be vested with significant powers to curb falsehoods in times of crisis.

Another concern with blunt legislation that vests significant powers in the authorities is that the fundamental liberty of freedom of speech and expression may be compromised.

The battle against fake news is not a zero-sum game, where to triumph over falsehoods, freedom of speech and expression has to be curtailed.

On the contrary, such attempts are counter-productive and smack of cowardly attempts by insecure governments and politicians to curb dissent.

Those who seek to do harm would have succeeded merely by making a society undermine its constitutional freedoms and the societal values that define it.

Similarly, the right of free speech must be exercised responsibly.

The freedom of speech and expression is needed even more to ensure that bad speech and falsehoods are decisively exposed for what they are.

Any law must balance the competing interests of protecting the home front while ensuring the values a society hold dear are not diminished.

Responsibility has to be shared if disinformation campaigns are to be repelled. A multi-stakeholder approach is vital as a well coordinated and well timed campaign at propagating falsehoods often leverages on digital technology and platforms for extensive reach.

Society, in short, has to increase its discernment quotient because if laws have to be activated, it may already be too late.

This is where educational institutions, libraries and mainstream media have a critical role to play in building society's immunity and resilience so that there is a collective ability to discern what is true or untrue.

To beat fake news, the imperative is to promote responsible free speech, encourage the open-minded exchange of information and ideas and enhance trust and confidence in the democratic process.

In an age of pervasive information flows, governments do not defeat fake news. It is people who are the bulwark against the insidious forces that seek to divide and destroy.

The writer is an associate professor of law at the School of Law at Singapore Management University. This is an edited version of an article that was published in The Business Times last Friday.