About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Fake News – Accountability of the Governed and their Governors

Published in The Edge Malaysia, April 2018.

I recently watched “The Post,” a movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the battle by The Washington Post in the early 1970s to publish the Pentagon Papers, which were top secret government documents pertaining to the decades-long involvement of the United States government in the Vietnam War. In particular, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States government had been misleading the American public for years over the progress, or lack thereof, in the Vietnam War. Fake News indeed.

The climax of “The Post” comes when The Washington Post and The New York Times are asked to appear before The United States Supreme Court to defend their right to publish the top secret Pentagon Papers without risk of government prohibition or punishment, even at the expense of a claimed need by the United States government to maintain the secrecy of that information, especially as the Vietnam War was still ongoing.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled 6 to 3 in favour of the freedom of the press and therefore that the principle or philosophy behind the freedom of the press was more important to the spirit of the United States than the need for the executive branch of government to protect its war policies from criticism and publication. There are strong arguments for both views – the Supreme Court vote was, after all, not unanimous – but “The Post” chose to highlight the following quote by Justice Hugo Black that, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”

In Malaysia, as we head into the 14th General Elections, the government has tabled a Bill in Parliament called the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018. According to news reports, which may or may not be Fake News themselves, the Bill proposes a fine of up to RM500,000 or a 10-year jail term for those found guilty of knowingly spreading fake news. Fake news is defined as, “any news, information, data and reports, which is or wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”

To be clear, fake news is bad. It can have severe destructive and divisive impacts on society given its sheer power. Politics in the Western hemisphere are showcases of its power. Indeed, the social media giant Facebook, currently caught up in a privacy scandal, was heavily criticized for its Newsfeed algorithms which amplified the power of fake news. The power of fake news isn’t just limited to fake news. Fake news can impact the way people eat, the kind of treatments people seek when they are ill, the kind of pseudo-science nonsense that people take as fact, and much more.

Now, one may agree wholeheartedly that fake news is bad, but reasonably, at least in my view, wonder why the government’s solution to fake news is legislation as opposed to education. Why not have a more educated society, with a willingness to verify stories and facts, as opposed to banning fake news? If we are to chart a 2050 aspiration for Malaysia, surely a more enlightened society of news consumers is more appealing than a less-enlightened society of restricted news consumers. Education takes a longer, more difficult road than legislation, but we’re into nation-building for the long haul, are we not?

Moreover, the education versus legislation debate aside, whether something is true or false is rarely binary in nature. A given event – like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – has multiple interpretations, all of which are “true” to the given interpreter. It’s like the parable of the elephant – different people holding different parts of an elephant; its trunk, its legs, its tail, its tusks, its ears and all coming to different conclusions about the animal that they are individually touching. I am not sure if you can legislate someone to interpret things the way you interpret them, but you can certainly try to educate them.

In any case, the government has made its choice and the Bill is almost certain to pass through Parliament. Now, let us assume the best of people (and governments) that the spirit of the Bill is really to create a society that truly values truth and fact. Of course, I am certain that this is what the true spirit of the Bill is as opposed to attempting to censor and censure conflicting opinions and interpretations and punish those who would attempt to hold others, including the government, accountable. Surely not!

In a previous article in this newspaper about three and a half years ago, I argued that if the government is asking the rakyat to tighten their belts by increasing taxes and tolls while cutting subsidies, it needs to play its part as well, by tightening its belt with regards to government expenditure. Along those lines, if the government is introducing an Anti-Fake News Bill, I expect it to play its part as well in developing a more truthful and fact-based society. We are in a partnership of governed and governor after all.

To be clear, when I say that I expect the government to play its part, I not only expect the government to be truthful to the rakyat – which the US government was not, based on the Pentagon Papers – but to also be more transparent and provide more avenues for the rakyat to be fact-based. This means releasing more and more data for public consumption so that people can make opinions based on facts. All those nice surveys and censuses that the Department of Statistics runs? Anonymise the data and release them for public use. Let’s face it, the government should not hide behind the defense of, “The claim you are making is false. We know this because we have more data.”

That doesn’t work. The government needs to play its part by allowing the rakyat to have a level playing field when it comes to data and facts. Giving limited data for the rakyat to make decisions or opinions on and then holding them accountable to that is a bit like giving a Science test where 40% of the material was covered in class, and the other 60% of the material was from outside the syllabus. The government is giving itself the tool to hold the rakyat accountable for their news creation and distribution; it must also, in the spirit of true partnership, give the rakyat the tools to hold the government accountable.

"Maka Kami, Rakyat Malaysia"

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