Deliberate online falsehoods (DOFs), also known as disinformation and fake news, is a problem that has again drawn the attention of the Singapore public.
Last Thursday (Sep 20), the Select Committee on DOFs published a report that explains the committee’s findings on the causes and impact of the problem. The report also recommends countermeasures such as critical thinking to address the problem.
The report paves the way for a multitude of efforts that could be taken at the institutional, societal and individual levels to protect the Singapore public from the harmful impact of DOFs.
As with any complex problem, the public would have a wide range of views on DOFs. These views dissect both the explanations for the causes of the problem and the recommended countermeasures to address the problem.
DOFs is not a straightforward problem as it could either gestate internally or be engineered by external actors. Different intentions drive its spread, and different end outcomes determine its methods.
It is inherent in falsehoods to be both persuasive and deniable. What is not deniable is the predominant intention to cause harm. There could be no single solution and hence a raft of countermeasures is necessary.
THE BEST DEFENCE IS CRITICAL THINKING
Critical thinking is perhaps the most important countermeasure as it could serve as the most fundamental defence against DOFs. Laws and cyber tools could deter the purveyors of DOFs and disrupt their methods but may have limited effect in making people – the targeted audience – more resilient.
There are also concerns over whether certain laws would undermine critical thinking. People must want and be able to think critically before they would even acknowledge the necessity of fact-checking and support quality journalism.
Critical thinking could help people to realise that no one is immune to ideological and cognitive biases when forming their thoughts and making their decisions.
It is the first step to determine what needs to be done – for example, teaching critical thinking skills – to counter DOFs. The next step, more importantly, is how to better teach critical thinking skills.
People now live in a confusing environment where many complex problems exist and are intertwined. For example, the Singapore public is expected to defend themselves against the dangers of DOFs, intolerance of cultural differences, extremism, foreign influence and cyber threats.
In fact, asymmetric warfare entails the use of disinformation and cyber threats to undermine a nation-state by targeting the people’s minds and emotions, and infrastructure.
While it is necessary to expect people to do more to defend themselves, is too much being expected out of them? Is it therefore possible to teach fundamental concepts of critical thinking that are versatile and could be applied to a broad range of dangers?
Could these concepts be adapted for people of various ages, education levels, professional and cultural backgrounds? Could these concepts be enduring and hence applicable for contemporary and future dangers?
Could these concepts be politically-neutral and undergirded by universal human values so that there is more buy-in from people regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum?
TWO LESSONS FROM COUNTER-EXTREMISM
There are two concepts that may form part of a framework for critical thinking or enhance current methods of teaching critical thinking. The appreciation of these concepts could help people defend effectively against DOFs and other dangers that may undermine social cohesion by targeting minds and emotions.
These concepts may be adapted from counter-extremism literature in which radical propaganda is seen as a form of disinformation.
The first concept is moral disengagement which entails the cognitive process of dehumanising other people – the “others” – who are different racially, religiously, economically, culturally or politically.
This process enables people to overlook that the “others” are also humans and hence behave unfairly and cruelly towards them. This behaviour may manifest in the act of accepting and circulating narratives that could cause harm to the “others”. Harm may manifest in physical and non-physical ways.
A historical example is the Singapore communal riots of 1964 in which one of the possible causes is toxic narratives inducing one group to perceive another group as deceitful, harmful and deserving of harm.
A contemporary example is the spread of falsehoods over social media that justifies violence against the Rohingyas who are perceived by their attackers as malicious outsiders.
People who consume online information must guard against this cognitive process which could render them susceptible to narratives that influence them into distrusting and hating the “others”.
The second concept is advantageous comparison – a cognitive process applied to make an act seem less negative and hence acceptable when it is a response to negative actions committed by “others”.
An extremism example is individuals sharing radical propaganda online. They perceive this act as the right thing to do and harmless compared to the injustice – perceived or actual – that those who share the same religion suffered at the hands of “others”.
“Others” may include public institutions that these individuals perceived as having treated them or those who share the same religion unfairly.
A socio-political example is respectable political supporters who resort to spreading rumours to help gain an advantage over “others”. They perceive this act as acceptable because the “others” have used falsehoods in the hustings. A study on The Spread of True and False News Online by MIT researchers highlights this example.
Such acts would not uphold justice but perpetuate misconceptions and distrust among people and between people and public institutions. People who share online information must guard against this cognitive process which could render them complicit – intentionally or inadvertently – in the spread of falsehoods.
Critical thinking is not a countermeasure that could be implemented straightforwardly but it is fundamental. It is not only about having more educational programmes but more importantly, honing the concepts that constitute effective critical thinking.
It is the cognitive nutrition and exercise that progressively builds up resistance against the viruses of falsehoods.
*Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article was published at ChannelNewsAsia.