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