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Govts must 'act fast to stop online rumours'

Publication Date : 10-05-2012


Governments need to act fast to snuff out falsehoods on the Internet, said leaders from Singapore and China as they exchanged notes at a forum on leadership in the age of new media.

Otherwise, the speed and reach of these websites can cause untruths to spread and create misperceptions that are hard to change, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told the third China-Singapore Forum on Leadership in Beijing yesterday.

"Governments therefore need to be able to sense what is happening on the Internet quickly and to respond, often sooner than they might otherwise like," he said, stressing that greater accountability must not come at the price of stifling individual expressions.

Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) organisation czar Li Yuanchao said that officials should tackle cyber talk head-on and not hide like ostriches.

"The best way to deal with online rumours is to speak the truth in a timely manner," he said at the one-day event attended by some 500 Communist Party cadres and 30 senior Singapore civil servants.

Internet gossip had fanned fears in China over radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant and sparked panic buying of salt among Chinese last year, Li noted.

The Chinese government did not censor Web comments but rather chose to ease public fears by releasing information through authoritative channels, he said.

But observers have noted that there have been instances when the authorities acted to limit the spread of information online such as by censoring related keywords during the Bo Xilai scandal and activist Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest recently.

The Chinese authorities are keen to increase their presence among the country's Internet community, which now numbers 513 million, the world's largest.

Li said more officials are going online, with more than 50,000 accounts set up on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like social media.

Teo said the Singapore Government, too, has been increasing its online presence. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for instance, has had 50,000 'likes' for his Facebook page since its launch last month.

These tools are 'a powerful platform for outreach, feedback and discussions' and reach those who might not be reached otherwise.

In Singapore, about half of those aged between 15 and 34 years depend on news aggregator websites, higher than the national average of 32 per cent, noted Teo.

He was joined by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sport Chan Chun Sing.

To reach - and convince - the people, it is critical for the government to speak the truth and have the trust of the people, according to Teo.

"Given the speed and reach of new media, veracity becomes even more important. With anonymity, it can be very difficult to establish truth on the Internet," he noted.

"Government must ensure that it maintains a high level of trust with the people, so that it continues to be regarded as a dependable and accountable source of information," he said.

"This is especially important during a crisis."


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