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Strengthening social cohesion in the face of deliberate online falsehoods

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) 70th Anniversary Celebrations and Interfaith Charity Dinner 2018 at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore
19 December 2018
Mr Ben Benjamin
President, Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)

Ms Dorothy Chan
Executive Director, Far East Organisation 

Ambassadors and Your Excellency’s,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. Good evening everyone. I am pleased to join you at tonight’s Charity Dinner, and happy to see many familiar faces this evening.

Religions contribute to our common good

2. In Singapore, our state is secular but our society multi-religious. Our Constitution allows every person to profess, practise and propagate his religion. Many religions share common values in serving humanity, such as care, consideration and contribution to our fellow man. In the social sector, faith-based organisations have long played a key role in providing educational and social services to the vulnerable and disenfranchised. 

3. While most faith-based organizations made significant contribution to helping the needy and promoted moral values in accordance to their faiths, we are encouraging more to work with others to promote inter-faith understanding and trust. Our religious leaders have taken on this responsibility of promoting religious harmony by deepening partnerships across religions. 

4. The IRO’s work is one such example. In August 2018, the IRO, in collaboration with local religious bodies, raised more than $32,000 in three days for victims of the Lombok earthquake in Indonesia. In a similar vein, tonight’s interfaith charity dinner will raise funds for six beneficiaries of different faiths. These collaborations demonstrate the convictions of IRO members to do good for the community together, articulated in the IRO Interfaith Prose on Charity we just heard.

5. Beyond the IRO, religious leaders, lay leaders and congregants can all do more to initiate collaborative social projects, such as outreach to needy families, jointly with organisation for different faiths. One example is the Blessings in Harmony initiative. In August this year, Al-Islah Mosque, Dhammakaya Centre Singapore, Church of the Transfiguration, Punggol West Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle and Punggol West Citizens’ Consultative Committee co-organised an outreach effort in Punggol. They rallied 300 volunteers to distribute food baskets to 600 needy families. This event exemplifies the value of multi-religiosity in Singapore and there is no better way of affirmation than the religious organisations taking the lead themselves in collaborating with each other. 

Strengthening social cohesion in the face of deliberate online falsehoods

6. I am also heartened to hear that the IRO plans to embark on a digital communications outreach campaign in 2019, to deepen the national conversation on inter-faith harmony.  Social media has given us a powerful avenue to build ties, but it can also be a powerful force used to sow discord, hate and harm. Individuals have successfully used race and religion to create tensions through deliberately spreading falsehoods online. Let me share two examples of how these falsehoods have become a serious problem around the world, with the potential to incite large-scale violence against religious and ethnic communities. 

7. In May 2016, a Facebook group called “Heart of Texas” with half a million followers urged their followers to turn up for a protest against a Muslim centre in downtown Houston. “Stop Islamization of Texas,” the post declared, with a photo of the Islamic Da’wah Center, which it called a “shrine of hatred.” It invited protesters to prepare for battle and to “bring along your firearms, concealed or not!”. Another Facebook group called “United Muslims of America” responded by asking people to rally at exactly the same time and place to “Save Islamic Knowledge”.  This group has a quarter of million followers.  

8. What was later found out was that both Facebook groups were created and managed by an organisation called, plainly, the Internet Research Agency1, operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia, which “organised” the demonstration and also the networks, all at a cost of US$100,000. Their intention was to divide society in order to achieve a political objective in the run-up to the US Presidential Elections. As shown by this case, any unhappiness and distrust in the community can be readily exploited and amplified through social media. Any social schism, such as religion in this case, or race, or even migrant issues, can be easily used as fuel for the fire.

9. Closer to home in Asia, riots arose earlier this year in Sri Lanka fuelled by rumours on social media. Content was circulating on Facebook claiming that the Muslims in Sri Lanka were plotting to sterilise and reduce the Sinhalese majority, who are mostly Buddhists. Anti-Muslim sentiments were fanned by a video reportedly showing a Muslim restaurant owner admitting to accusation in Sinhalese that he had added sterilisation pills to the food. This was later proven false - the restaurant owner did not understand Sinhalese and the “pill” was actually a lump of flour. Nevertheless, the video which was posted on Facebook went viral and stoked violence towards Muslims. Two died, ten were injured. Numerous places of worship and businesses were attacked. 

10. We see from these two examples how quickly falsehoods can be created, multiplied and amplified online. The US example showed how social media can be used to create violence from outside the country. Online, individuals can easily coordinate actions behind the cloak of anonymity, without taking responsibility for their words and actions. WhatsApp was a key platform used to coordinate attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka, and the Government had to shut down social media platforms to prevent further strife. 

11. In multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore, we must be all the more discerning. Bigger powers and non-state actors within Singapore or overseas can easily use the online space to exploit religious fault lines for their ideological or political purposes. 

12. Thus, our religious leaders have an important role in guiding their congregations to discern rumours, distortions and myths about each other’s religions and current affairs. We must stand prepared to call out falsehoods that incite discrimination, hate speech or religious violence. This requires followers of different religions to build a strong foundation of trust and friendship in times of peace, through goodwill and open communication.

13. MCCY welcomes more ground-up projects across religions to build understanding and counter misinformation. Today, we have the “Ask Me Anything” dialogue series, and dialogues led by the Inter Racial and Religious Confidence Circle and Community Development Councils (IRCC). Since 2017, they have collectively reached out to more than 10,000 Singaporeans. These platforms provide Singaporeans a safe space to dialogue on faiths and their practices, and clarify misconceptions. We look forward to supporting more such ground-up efforts that counter misinformation and contribute to our common good. 

Conclusion

14. In closing, I congratulate the IRO for organising tonight’s interfaith charity dinner, and bringing together religious leaders across faiths to rally around common social causes. I encourage other religious leaders and followers to work with other faiths, exploring practical and meaningful ways to contribute to our common good. Together, regardless of race or religion, as we show care, consideration and contribute to our fellow men, we will build a more caring, cohesive and inclusive Singapore for present and future generations.

15. Thank you, and have a good evening.

Notes:

1 New York Times 20 Sept 2018 The Plot to Subvert an Election
 
Last Updated: 24 December 2018

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