Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lee Hsien Loong's Criticism of the Internet: How should the blogosphere receive it?

In his recent speech at the 6th ASIAN-EUROPEAN EDITORS’ FORUM, 6 OCTOBER 2006, Lee Hsien Loong made the following comments about the blogosphere:

31. The internet is enabling ordinary citizens to post news and views on the web, making information available more quickly and plentifully than ever. The conventional wisdom is that the free flow of information on the internet is universally a good thing. It is undoubtedly very difficult to control information flow. But as we find terrorist groups using the internet to plan murderous attacks, and paedophiles using it to prey on defenceless children, we are learning that while the internet is a great boon to mankind, it is not an unmitigated one.

32. In the pre-internet age, newspapers and television stations not only reported news and opinions, they also filtered, processed and verified the information, in order to present coherent perspectives which shape the public debate and the public’s collective understanding of the world around us. The internet short circuits and undercuts this model.

33. Even in the internet age, there will still be a role for serious journalism, whether in print or on the web, because people will still seek out information sources which are reliable, verified and insightful. But it will not be easy to keep the public debate on this high plane, especially on controversial issues. For the internet also enables clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths to circulate freely and gain currency through viral distribution, and these are not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation. How to deal with this is something which every newspaper, and indeed every society, is grappling with.
For many in the blogosphere, such comments seem like a belittlement of bloggers, and an attempt to shape public opinion against internet journalism. But to what extent are these comments justified?

While it is true that there exist 'half-truths' and 'untruths' on the internet, it is also true that these half-truths and untruths are quickly corrected, or opposition to these untruths is quickly expressed. The rapid spread of information on the internet also allows the rapid spread of counter opinion and factual corrections in response to inaccuracies and half-truths.

Furthermore, the mainstream media is not exempt from 'clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths.' In fact, in the light of many recent events involving the mainstream media (including the comment on IJ girls, the censorship of the 'mee siam mai hum' comment on television replay, and the obvious downplaying of news critical of Singapore in the mainstream press) one would think that the Prime Minister is describing the state of the local daily and broadcast content just as much as he is describing the internet. The simple truth is, the weaknesses he criticises the internet of having are just as prevalent in established media.

The difference between the two is, however, that the ruling party is unable to monopolise the internet and impose its power structures upon it. The internet is free-wheeling and democratic, anyone and everyone with access to the computer can publish content at the click of a button. The real issue about the internet, from PM Lee's point of view, is that it presents a serious challenge to the ruling party's power.

In view of this, should we bloggers worry about PM Lee's remarks? Perhaps the best attitude we should have is one of no fear - and that is to simply continue writing and publishing quality honest opinions about the state of affairs. The best way to respond to such criticism is simply to raise the quality of internet discourse and prove to the incumbents that the internet can be, and often is, a platform for intelligent and informed debate, often more intelligent and informed than the mainstream press.

With this attitude, the internet can keep the mainstream media in check and continue to develop and establish its credibility, even in the face of criticism by the government. And in the process, it can play its crucial role as an independent voice keeping the government in check, as it should in a healthy, genuine democracy.

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