Saturday, August 18, 2012

How should the Government handle rumours?

In the lead-up to the country's birthday this month, the talk of the town - and even across the Causeway - was about the "news" that wasn't. 

A rumour that former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had died started circulating on Twitter at least five days before the National Day Parade, with journalists asked by just about everyone - friends, parents, the neighbourhood barber - about its veracity. And despite a couple of journalists' efforts to debunk the rumour online, it continued to spread, spilling over into the heartlands via word of mouth and SMSes.

It reportedly generated some of the most searched terms on Google during that period, and was rolling off the tongues of housewives and taxi drivers as well. Internet chatter became coffee shop talk.

This is not the first time that rumours have circulated about the health of one of Singapore's founding fathers and former Prime Minister. But never before, it is fair to say, had the speculation spread so virulently, quickly and widely.

In an age where more than one in two Singapore residents is ostensibly on Facebook - that's 2,712,060 users here - social media has become the megaphone that amplifies rumours exponentially.

So what has been puzzling to many was the radio silence during the week from the Government, which in the past has found ways, direct or otherwise, to dispel such misinformation.


The hoax, of course, was laid to rest when Mr Lee turned up at the parade in good health - an image simultaneously beamed to television sets across the island. Within a mere couple of hours, the Instagram image posted on TODAY's Facebook page had been shared tens of thousands of times, and commented on excitedly.

The incident provides much to chew on, including how it demonstrated a widespread belief, misguided or otherwise, among Singaporeans that the Government would withhold important information for expediency.

Just as important, well-educated Singapore society - as a whole, as well as at the individual level - was found wanting in its ready credulity. A society susceptible to rumours is an easy target for any troublemaker, with the new media as an accomplice.

A case in point: In India on Thursday, thousands from the north-east of the country fled southern cities after rumours they would be attacked by Muslims in reprisal for recent ethnic violence. Bangalore Deputy Commissioner of Police Vincent S D'Souza told AFP: "Mischief-mongers and vested interests are misusing social media, mobile and the Internet to spread these rumours and create panic."

In business, listed companies pro-actively and regularly rebut rumours. In politics, election campaigns are won or lost on the basis of how well untruths are debunked.

So why did the state machinery - which recently added a Chief of Government Communications to its ranks - not rebut the rumour about Mr Lee's health?


Granted, there is the risk that addressing rumours (which breed effortlessly in cyberpace) ends up lending them credence, and encourages even more rumour-mongering, not to mention a public expectation that the Government will rebut every untruth - failing which, the assumption is "it must be true".

The Government's long-held stance is that it does not deal in rumours. But surely, given how this particular rumour gained traction and created protracted public anxiety, some sort of response - not necessarily an official one - was merited?

A distinction should also be made between disinformation and misinformation. While the latter would eventually die out, disinformation - driven by malicious intent - is harder to quash and should be nipped in the bud.

In 2010, a former Singaporean claimed on his blog that Mr Lee had suffered a massive heart attack and was slammed by netizens for what he quickly admitted was a hoax.

The Government had declined comment, but a routine and unrelated statement was triggered by Mr Lee's visit (as Minister Mentor) to London at the time.

Today, Mr Lee does not hold any Cabinet position. It may, or may not, have been a factor in why it was felt unnecessary to officially rebut the rumour. But is this not where the Government's social media strategy should have come into play?


A number of People's Action Party MPs and Cabinet ministers have been cultivating an active presence on Twitter and Facebook. A simple, by-the-way tweet or post from any of them could have stopped the rumour in its tracks. Instead, the silence fuelled the speculation.

At its height, there were comments circulating which were attributed to Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi Lu. The problem was that Dr Chia's comments - stating that Mr Lee was in good health when he met him on April 9 - were made months earlier in response to the rumour mill then. That fact did not stop websites and online forums from perpetuating Dr Chia's remarks as if they were recently made, as a result of which, netizens not only gave Dr Chia grief, they also found more reason to believe the hearsay.

MPs that TODAY spoke to explained that they saw no need to rebut the latest falsehood about Mr Lee's health given that the National Day Parade was just a few days away. Some, like MPs Denise Phua and Zaqy Mohamad and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, only alluded to the rumours after the event.

"Mr Lee's appearance would have been the best response," said Mr Tan, who had reposted TODAY's picture of Mr Lee on his Facebook page on National Day.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng said: "To be honest, I didn't have the information - we don't come in contact with him on a daily basis. In the past there have been other rumours, we can't be checking on his health every time. In future, there could be rumours again. So if the MPs respond to this one, but don't respond to future rumours, then people may think something is amiss."


Mr Baey, a public relations practitioner, said had there not been an opportunity for Mr Lee to make a public appearance, and had the rumour continued, then MPs could take steps. For instance, "if there had been a grassroots event where we saw him, we could then casually post on Facebook. Such a subtle note would be better".

What about the mainstream media, one might ask. To some extent it was faced with a similar dilemma: Should it devote column space to debunk every rumour floating around? This paper's position is that we will address those that have a wide-ranging effect on the whole of society. But for us to do that, the stakeholders have to give the media something to debunk the rumour with.

Yet it is also important that the Government - when grappling with disinformation, rumours, untruths, myths and smears - not go overboard, either, in feeling compelled to respond regularly and with equal weightage to every nugget. Nuance is key.

As both Mr Baey and Mr Tan point out, ultimately, it is a judgement call whether a rumour warrants a response, "and if so, in what form", as Mr Tan put it.

"If it has a severe impact on national interests, there would be a need to respond as quickly as possible … especially when it has the possibility of viralling out of control and spilling over into real actions.

"For example, race and religious issues," said Mr Tan.

"The important thing is for readers to realise that not everything is as it seems, and the spirit of discernment is critical."

Hopefully, the education process - on both sides - is underway, thanks to an episode that will serve as a cautionary tale.