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Dear
Sir,

I
refer to your article ‘How Technology Disrupted the Truth’ dated
12 Jul 2016. In
this article, Katherine Vimer makes some striking points about how
digital culture has profoundly
shifted our understanding of events, as
well as how it has resulted in
a rise in
the publishing of intentionally
misleading news on the
Internet.

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Katherine
talks about how the
Internet-era media is
consciously sidestepping
or ignoring
unwelcome facts and contradictions in their ever more desperate,
fragmented chase for eyeballs. This is extremely problematic, as it
means that users
are less likely to be exposed to information that broadens
their
worldview or
allows them to learn something new.
Instead, users are presented
with a stream of information that, unbeknownst
to most users, has been
processed by special algorithms
in order to
reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

She
also goes on to explain
how the digital revolution has
led to a rise in the publishing
of false, misleading, or
deliberately outrageous stories which spread
like wildfire across the
various
social media platforms. The
reason why these stories spread so quickly, is because they
are assumed to be true by most people and
thus continued to be shared on
the social media network,
resulting
in a vicious cycle where
the same links
continue to be shared over and over again.

What
Katherine said really resonates with me. I
find this extremely troubling as this can be a serious issue,
especially
during emergency situations, when news is breaking in real time and
people do not have the time nor patience to carefully check each
source, making it hard for people to distinguish what is fake from
real.

For
example, during the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, rumors
quickly spread on social media that the Louvre and Pompidou Centre
had been hit, and that François Hollande had suffered a stroke. In
their panic,
people started blindly
forwarding
the message to all their loved ones without checking the source, thus
resulting in the fake news becoming extremely widespread.

Singapore
isn’t free of fake news, either. Sometime in March 2017, word
spread like wildfire via WhatsApp that someone was fined $200 for
leaving used tissue behind at a public eating place. Incredulous as
it may sound, many people believed it enough to pass on the message
to friends and family – and it became such a serious problem that
the National Environment Agency (NEA) had to come forward with an
official statement to debunk the hoax on March 30.

Also,
in 2015, several foreign news outlets, including American news
network CNN and Chinese broadcaster CCTV, wrongly reported that
founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew – who was then in
intensive care – had passed on, as the reporters had based the
article on an announcement made by a fake government website. Later
on, the police found out that the website was created by a teenager,
who had claimed that he only wanted to demonstrate how easy it was
for a hoax to be perpetuated.

These
examples that I have presented proves that fake news is becoming more
and more prevalent in this day and age, where just about anyone with
basic technical skills can create a website containing misleading
content, share it to Facebook and watch it spread like wildfire
across the world without even lifting a finger.

However,
there is something in Katherine’s article that I cannot fully agree
beyond partial concession. Throughout the article, there is this
overtone that the Internet-era media is responsible for truth
slipping away in some sense. In my honest opinion, I feel that this
is not true, as intentionally misleading news was already a problem
long before the Internet or computers were even invented.

For
example, back in the 17th century, pamphlets, songs and
posters were basically the equivalent of social media and proved just
as effective as social media at spreading falsehoods. One of the most
popular examples of misleading and seditious material during the 17th
century was that of the Mazarinades. During the early years of Louis
XIV’s reign, these pamphlets, primarily attacking Louis XIV’s
prime minister Cardinal Mazarin, levelled charges of everything from
corruption and treason to incest and sodomy and other sexual
misdemeanours against the Italian cardinal.

Low
literacy rates did little to slow the spread of these news, as news
was often passed on by word of mouth – the social media of the age.
Due to the speed at which the news spread, the outlandish and extreme
claims made by this particular set of pamphlets were mostly
successful at misleading those living in France at that period of
time.

Singapore
in the past wasn’t exempt from misleading news, either. People who
wanted to attack certain entities could do so by spreading seditious
material through either village gossip or pamphlets. And since most
people simply assumed that the information was true, they continued
spreading the news via word of mouth, resulting in the fake news
spreading at an astonishing rate.

While
one might argue that the scale at which fake news is being spread has
changed massively, the process and its reshaping of people’s
understanding of events really has not changed at all. Therefore, to
say that the Internet-era media is solely responsible for the
publishing of false or deceptive news is really not a fair argument.

In
conclusion, Katherine Vimer’s write-up makes numerous striking
points, such as how the digital revolution has led to a rise in the
publishing of false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories
which have the potential to spread at alarming rates. However, there
are some parts of her write-up that I do not agree with, such as the
implication that the Internet-era media should be held responsible
for these misleading stories, as they were already a thing long
before computers or the Internet became widepread – from 17th
century pamphleting attacking a specific entity, to simple village
gossip.

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