By James Tan

As expected, the fake news bill was passed on April 2. What was surprising was that all 10 MPs from PAS who were present also voted in favour of the bill. Unlike the redelineation bill which was primarily voted in by Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs, the fake news bill received bipartisan support.

In Germany, the NetzDG law against fake news was passed at the end of June 2017 and came into force in early October the same year. French President Emmanuel Macron, a known centrist, has announced a law banning fake news during French election campaigns, to be enforced by the end of 2018. Singapore meanwhile formed a 10-member committee in January to tackle online falsehoods.

It is clear by now that the war on fake news has gone global. The question is, should we see this as a pattern, that governments reining in on freedom of speech is for ill intent, or acknowledge the severity of the threat?

Everything comes at a price. While suppression of freedom can destroy societies by the powers that be, total freedom can also cause the destruction of communities from within.

In principle, any law constraining the flow of information is a setback to freedom of speech. In an ideal world, the right approach would be to educate the people about validating any information they consume, not to restrict the content given to them. In an ideal world also, people are constantly exposed to both sides of the story. That is the beauty of the new world of social media, so to speak.

However, the world is far from ideal. Despite the notion that information is democratised through social media where knowledge is only a click away, the inconvenient truth is that the content we receive is skewed more than ever to our beliefs, character and behaviour.

Knowledge is power. But what if that knowledge is being manipulated by algorithms written to only feed you what you want to hear or see?

How is information manipulated? To find the answer, we did an experiment.

We created a few phantom accounts on social media and for each, started “liking” Facebook pages of only one side. It appears that each of those phantom account newsfeeds is shown different news angles and content on a similar subject.

We followed the pages aligned to a certain political party. What I saw was content fully in support of the political party, and attacks on the opposing side, constantly.

Hence, if you have so far been hitting “like” on pages or news portals that are aligned to a certain political ideology, you are very much excluded from access to the other side of the story. Content we come across appears to be true in our isolated worlds, but could turn out to be fake. The scariest part is, we may never realise it is fake as we remain in our cocoon of self-serving reality.

Of course, some people find comfort in consuming content that reinforces their current beliefs. When this happens, we have a continuously misled society waiting to implode.

A few Western countries have fallen victim to fake news, where emotional and false information led people of even the most developed nations to act questionably. For example, Brexit in the UK was reported by The Guardian to be largely caused by fake news stirring anti-Islamic sentiment and claiming the population of EU residents in the UK had outgrown the Britons.

In the US, ironically, there were grave concerns that covert Russian fake news operations targeting the US elections landed Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

To shield ourselves from fake news, we need to open channels from different sources. Malaysians should start exploring beyond our comfort zone. We need to always seek the other side of the story. Social media can be a double-edged sword and it will destroy our society if we use it wrongly. On the other hand, using it wisely would bring us closer to the truth, which is the true power of knowledge.

The debate on the pros and cons of the fake news bill will continue. What is even more important now is to know how to spare ourselves from fake news.

Start by hitting “like” on pages of the other side and follow friends who usually have opposing views. The content displayed on our news feed will change dramatically and we will find ourselves freed from a bubble we never knew existed.

Let’s move #ForwardTogether by having an open mindset and the willingness to see the other side of the story.

Originally published on Free Malaysia Today on Wednesday April 4, 2018.

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