PM Lee: Taking full advantage of changing media landscape

These are excerpts from a speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a Lianhe Zaobao event last Friday, to celebrate the Chinese newspaper's 90th anniversary:

The media landscape has been completely transformed since Zaobao began. Globalisation and technology have drawn the world closer together, but led to more rapid changes and uncertainty.

Social media is transforming our lives. Readership and consumption habits have evolved. The number of Singaporean readers is stagnating; their median age is rising.

Interests are more diverse, including greater demand to hear different points of view - not just for serious news, but entertainment and lifestyle too. Many people no longer read the papers or news online, but rather rely on friends' recommendations via social media.

Media is "pulled" on demand rather than "pushed" to captive audiences. Preference for shorter, quicker snippets than comprehensive analyses - 140-character limit on Weibo and Twitter makes it an impossible challenge to report serious stories!

There are more sources of news, many of which are free. More readers are using free news aggregators, thus putting pressure on paid providers like Zaobao.

These trends bring many benefits, but also new challenges.

The benefits - it is easier to share information, connect with one another, keep abreast of latest trends. People may be physically far apart, but they can connect instantly to family, friends and colleagues. People are using new media to organise themselves for common causes, for example disaster relief efforts for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Humanitarian assistance could be quickly organised because of new media. What would have taken many days now takes minutes.

The challenges - news that travels fastest may not be the most accurate. Immediate consensus views may not gel with considered analyses. It is also easier to coalesce in narrower groups, and hence harder to forge a national consensus.

Abuse of new media is a big challenge facing many countries, including Singapore, for example criminal activity, including hacking.

We witnessed multiple attacks recently, in Singapore and our neighbours. Hacking is a serious threat. Not just a prank but it can cause grave harm, for example shutting down essential government services, or crashing a hospital management system. Hence it is a crime. We will deal with the culprits fully under the law.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem. The young are especially vulnerable, victims may end up depressed or suicidal. We need laws to combat cyberbullying and other forms of Internet harassment.

Next, trolling, the phenomenon of discussion and debate degenerating into abuse and hate-mongering. The issue is not about whether people agree or disagree online. Trolls deter serious readers from participating, and ruin the overall atmosphere in cyberspace. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable face to face, and should be totally unacceptable online too.

One factor behind trolling is online anonymity. Studies have shown that anonymity increases unethical behaviour and contempt, because they feel that no one will know who they are and hence can do whatever they want.

Many overseas sites have grappled with this issue. Some have installed safeguards to manage the problem, for example, requiring log-ins for posting comments - YouTube, New York Times. Popular Science bans comments altogether.

In Singapore, we see much constructive engagement online, but also no lack of trolling. We must fight back against trolling, and provide a safe, responsible online environment which promotes constructive participation.

TODAYonline.com now requires readers to log in using their FB (Facebook) accounts before posting comments. This has worked well and raised the quality of discussion.

The Government will do likewise. Reach will require log-ins from mid-December.

These challenges are not easy to solve.

But the new media is already a reality and an indispensable part of our lives. We must do more to harness its potential to improve our lives, while reducing its downsides.

The Government is harmonising our new media rules with our rules for mainstream media, for example, requiring online news sites that exceed a certain readership to be licensed under the Broadcasting Act, and requiring news and current affairs sites not to receive foreign funding.

The Government is also leveraging new media to engage Singaporeans better. Almost every ministry and MP has a Facebook account, including me (plus Twitter and Instagram too!)

Because young Singaporeans tell me, "Facebook is for the older generation (20-30 years old), I use Instagram!"

I find them effective channels of communications, which allow me to engage Singaporeans directly and quickly. My recent Facebook post about a barn owl which flew into the Istana garnered 500,000 views within a day!

We are experiencing a strategic shift in the media landscape. Our rules and norms have not yet caught up with this new reality.

Over time, we need to develop a framework which will help us take full advantage of the new media, to widen the space for constructive discourse and participation among Singaporeans.

It will allow different perspectives to surface, not just those of a vocal minority, and protect responsible users from those who abuse cyberspace, especially anonymously.


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