Monday, 16 September 2019

Peel The Onion: Could Media Literacy Council be right? Satire can be fake news? Yes, but...

Why did the Media Literacy Council (MLC) say that satire was fake news?

I blame Mrs Lim Hwee Hua.

Remember her?

You should. She is the first woman to become a full minister in Singapore when she was promoted to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009.

But she was voted out in the 2011 General Election after her People’s Action Party team lost Aljunied GRC to the Workers’ Party.

And that might have been a good thing.

Because the next year, she shared fake news on Facebook.

The article was about then US President Barack Obama complaining about partisan politics and asking a crowd at a campaign rally why he would want to serve another term as president of “this godforsaken country”.

If you didn’t read the article too closely, you could easily mistake it for a genuine US news report.

That was why Mrs Lim shared it with the comment:
“Increasingly challenging everywhere, whatever Obama’s campaign strategy might be.”

The problem was that the article was from The Onion, a Peabody Award-winning US satirical newspaper, which Mrs Lim had apparently never heard of.

The article was satire. It was also fake news.

She might have known this if she had read other Onion articles like “Study reveals: Babies are stupid” and “9/11 hijackers surprised to find selves in hell”.

I believe this must be why the MLC posted a graphic that said satire was a type of fake news, which got the council into so much trouble recently.

It was all Mrs Lim’s fault.

Wait, you may ask, doesn’t this Onion episode illustrate that satire can be fake news and that the MLC was right?

Well, yes and no.

The issue is that even though fake news may be satire, not all satire is fake news.

It could just be local DJ Chris Ho posting on Facebook:
“I’m with you foreigners! Kill the (censored) Singaporeans but not my friends, can?”
That actually happened in 2014. He called it his “little satirical remark”.

But I think the larger issue is that in Singapore, “fake news” has become a loaded term. (And not because of Donald Trump.)

We now conflate “fake news” with “Pofma”, a cute name for what many consider a scary new law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, passed four months ago.

To many, by equating satire with fake news, the MLC appeared to be saying that satire came under Pofma and that would make people like Ho and beloved self-described “satirist” Mr Brown criminals to be prosecuted. (I’m safe because I’m merely an alleged humour columnist.)

To assuage such fears, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugan said last Friday:
“The suggestion that satire is covered by Pofma is erroneous. We’ve been very clear, I’ve been very clear, both in Parliament and outside, Pofma does not cover satire.”

But he defended the MLC as “good people” even though this is the council’s second Facebook mishap in two years.

Last year, it was “Signs your child is a cyberbully” that got the council cyberbullied.

This year, it is fake news about satire being fake news from the organisation formed by the Government in 2012 to educate us about online hazards like cyberbullying and fake news.

The MLC has apologised for the post.

But Mrs Lim Hwee Hua didn’t for sharing fake news seven years ago.

In those carefree pre-Pofma days, after she realised the news article she shared was fake, she just wrote:
“Indeed, it is increasingly challenging everywhere – to foster a trusting relationship between government and people, and between people and people, and to differentiate between real and not-so-real news.”
She could be one of those people who thought The Noose was the news.

Her gaffe is even mentioned on the Wikipedia page about The Onion.

I guess it was fortunate she was voted out of office by then because as a former minister who shared fake news rather than a sitting minister who shared fake news, she was a little less embarrassing to the Government.

Then the Media Literacy Council came along.

- Published in The New Paper, 16 September 2019

Monday, 2 September 2019

Woman forced open MRT door because of 'autistic sister': 'Hoax' claim also a hoax?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said last week that commuters may have to wait longer for trains during off-peak hours.

He must be expecting more delays caused by desperate women forcing open doors in MRT stations and getting stuck between them.

That last part is not true. It’s my attempt at a joke. You know that – I hope.

I don’t want to be accused of spreading fake news. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned in his National Day Rally speech, POFMA will catch me.

Already too much fake news has been going around lately.

There was no ceiling collapse in Jewel Changi Airport or stabbing in Tampines Mall as alleged in a couple of viral videos.

There is no gang war in Yishun, although a man in Yishun was caught trying to steal a bra from a pole hanging outside a second-storey flat with an umbrella, which is unfortunately not fake news and probably more disturbing.

But the viral video of the woman forcing open the MRT doors at the Little India station is legit. We know that because SBS Transit confirmed that the incident happened last Monday at 3.30pm.

People criticised the woman for her anti-door behaviour.

Then a screengrab of a Reddit post by someone named “phong” started circulating.

It read:
“I know this auntie. While everyone here is blasting her, I thought I will provide some context for her actions.

“The lady who scurried into the train first? Her younger sister, who is autistic. Who has a history of wandering off and forgetting her way home.

“Hopefully you will begin to understand her motivations for trying so hard to board the train after her.”
Though it was unverified, many shared the post as fact and vilification turned into sympathy.

Then a Twitter user named EllieTay tweeted a whole thread to claim:
“She is my mother and regarding the story about her chasing her autistic sister is a hoax.”
She explained:
“What actually happened is that she and her friend were rushing to get home… (This was at the time where everyone is also getting home from work) and the MRT was packed with people, my mother’s friend got in first, with my mother from behind didn’t want to be left alone to wait for another train, barged forward and pried open the door which got her stuck.”
EllieTay added:
“When my mother and her friend arrived at their stop, they were approached by the SMRT staff for questioning. I was called in to pick up my mother and have talked to the staff, fortunately they are not asking for any compensation for the door, they only gave a warning to my mother to be more careful.”
So which account is true?

While a couple of websites have reported the tweets, they have not been as widely shared as the “autistic sister” post.

My guess is people are now wary that the tweets claiming that the earlier post was a hoax may be a hoax too. Once bitten, twice shy.

The funny thing is that you can see that reporters from The Straits Times, The New Paper and Channel NewsAsia have replied to the one of EllieTay’s tweets, asking her to get in touch with them, most likely to verify her claims.

Since the news outlets have yet to report the tweets, it’s safe to assume they have not been verified. Don’t want POFMA to catch them and all that.

I find the tweets rather dubious myself.

First, EllieTay said the incident took place when everyone was “getting home from work”, but SBS Transit had said it happened at 3.30pm, which is not when most people leave work.

Second, she said “the MRT was packed with people”, but in the video, the train and the platform were not “packed” – since, you know, it was only 3.30pm.

Third, she said that “SMRT staff” approached her mother and friend for questioning, but the incident happened on the Downtown line, which is operated by SBS Transit, not SMRT.

Okay, maybe she got the two rail operators mixed up, which is understandable enough, but I doubt that the staff members could have so quickly identified and tracked down the mother and friend at a different station. That’s a lot of surveillance, coordination and running around just to give someone a warning.

Also, SBS Transit hasn’t said anything about having spoken to the passengers involved in the incident, which I believe it would if it did.

What do you believe?

What do you want to believe?

An auntie running after an autistic sister is a better story than a mother trying to catch up to a friend.

And that’s what makes fake news so seductive. It’s hard to resist sharing a good story.

Sometimes you wish the news was fake.

Like when the Transport Minister says you may have to wait longer for the train.

Hey, where’s my bra?

- Published in The New Paper, 2 September 2019

Monday, 19 August 2019

‘Cuckoo bird’ cheer at NTU freshman camp: ‘We didn’t know it would become so big’

Maybe they’re really into ornithology.

That’s why they kept repeating the words “cuckoo bird” over and over again.

But the way the young men and women were pointing at their crotch while chanting the words in last week’s viral video suggests that they’re probably more interested in anatomy.

I was their age once, though not so publicly demonstrative of where my prurient interests lay.

When I first heard there was a video going around of inappropriate behaviour at a freshman orientation camp at a local university, I assumed it was the National University of Singapore (NUS) again.

Three years ago, reports of sexualised games at NUS camps led to then Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung declaring that “pretending to ejaculate into the face of a fellow student plays no part” in university education.

Which is always a helpful reminder.

I believe it was the first time an acting minister had ever used the word “ejaculate” in public. (God knows how many times he said it in private.)

NUS was also in the news in April because of the Monica Baey episode, which highlighted the prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus, mostly by shower voyeurs.

I also remember the sordid sex-for-grades trial in 2013 involving an NUS law professor and his student.

He took her virginity on his NUS office sofa! She got pregnant! He made her pay for her abortion! She bought him a Montblanc pen and an iPod Touch when the iPod Touch was a thing!

So is it any wonder that by now, whenever I hear there’s inappropriate sexual behaviour at a local university, I’m conditioned to think it must be NUS?

But to my surprise, the video was not taken in NUS – but in Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

What a twist!

An NTU spokesman said last Thursday:
“Looking at the video, the cheer is not in line with the standards set at NTU, as it runs contrary to the values of safety, respect and inclusiveness which are emphasised in the university’s transition and orientation programme.”
So how did it happen?

I asked a person who was actually there when the video was taken.

She said the cheer took place in a lecture theatre on Aug 8, the last day of the camp organised by the business school.

The NTU student added: “It was during a cheer fight when they were running out of cheers.”

A “cheer fight” is a game where groups of students try to top each other by coming up with louder, more entertaining and frequently more outrageous cheers to get a bigger reaction for their performance.

Someone happened to take a video of this one and posted it online where it went viral.

“We didn’t know it would become so big,” the student said.

I asked if anyone there was offended by the cheer.

She said: “Everyone kind of laughed it off because it was part of the cheer fight and nobody really said anything.”

I spoke to another NTU student who recently attended a different faculty camp as a freshman, and she said she heard cheers using the Hokkien term for vagina, you know, the one with the initials C and B. (Coincidentally, also the initials for “cuckoo bird”.)

So the lewd cheer in the video was not an isolated case.

She said the obscenities in the cheers were a “culture shock” for her, but she didn’t complain.

Well, at least no one pretended to ejaculate into anyone’s face. Right? (Please don't let a video of someone ejaculating into someone’s face show up.)

I’m not sure which is worse, but Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has yet to comment on whether shouting the local slang for male genitalia while thrusting and gyrating your hips in unison is part of university education.

After all, the cheer could just be an over-enthusiastic homage to Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel-turned-1975 Oscar-winning movie starring Jack Nicholson.

Three geese in a flock, one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo bird’s nest.

Or something like that.

I guess it would be easier just to say “cuckoo bird” two dozen times.

- Published in The New Paper, 19 August 2019


After Monica Baey: My daughter is in NUS, should I be worried?

Minister says 'ejaculate', thanks to rapey NUS freshman orientation games

Sequelitis: Darinne Ko is no Cecilia Sue (and farewell, Yam Ah Mee)