Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

China to reorganise propaganda efforts at home and abroad

March 21, 2018


© AFP/File | The CCTV tower in Beijing: the broadcaster is facing consolidation with other state media

BEIJING (AFP) – China Wednesday announced a series of changes aimed at strengthening its global influence, including the creation of a centralised news service to better communicate the ruling Communist Party’s message at home and abroad.The changes are part of a larger overhaul of government functions that will also see an increased role for the United Front Work Department, a shadowy organisation that has been accused of trying to manipulate politics abroad.

Under the new arrangement, the party’s Central Propaganda Department will take direct responsibility for print, news and movies away from the central government, according to an announcement published by the official Xinhua news agency.

The move to put these branches of the media directly under the party’s control comes as China has been tightening censorship and efforts to dictate the outlook and “positivity” of content.

Control of radio and television will be placed under a separate government-run organisation tasked with “carrying out the Party’s propaganda guidelines and policies”.

The change is aimed at ensuring that broadcast media “acts as the Party’s mouthpiece”, the announcement said.

As part of the change Chinese state media outlets CCTV, China Radio International and China National Radio will be consolidated into one super-broadcaster answering to the Central Propaganda Department.

Programmes targeted at foreign audiences will be rebranded as “the Voice of China”, the announcement said.

The reorganisation will also increase the prominence of the United Front Work , an agency which works to promote ties between the Communist Party and non-Communist elite — including other political parties, former government officials, religious groups and overseas Chinese.

Under the new arrangement it will have complete responsibility for work related to China’s ethnic minority groups, religious management and contact with overseas Chinese, which Beijing sees as an important constituency for its propaganda efforts.

President Xi Jinping has described the United Front Work Department as a “magic weapon” in the country’s soft power arsenal.

But it has come under increased criticism for what some say are covert efforts to influence politics in other countries.

Chinese donors tied to United Front-affiliated groups gave money to Australian politicians, providing impetus for Canberra to introduce new laws to limit foreign interference in its government.




The covert department behind China’s growing influence

March 21, 2018

‘Magic wand’ used to extend China’s reach abroad gets enhanced role at time of growing international concern over state’s covert influence

South China Morning Post

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 4:37pm

The controversial Chinese Communist Party department responsible for promoting its influence around the world will have its authority greatly strengthened, according to a document seen by the South China Morning Post.

The document was later published by the official Xinhua news agency on Wednesday afternoon.

The United Front Work Department, which has fallen under the scrutiny of Western governments in recent months, will now oversee the country’s ethnic and religious issues as well as overseas Chinese affairs.

This is part of a sweeping party restructuring that will see a further fusion between the party and the state.

It aims at increasing efficiency and strengthening the party’s control on all aspects of life in China.

The document also proposed upgrades to four party leading groups – responsible for reform, cybersecurity, finance and the economy, and foreign affairs.

The leading groups are the de facto decision-making bodies in Chinese politics and the upgrade is designed to further institutionalise the party’s political power.

The elevation of the UFW, once hailed by Xi Jinping as a “magic weapon” for the party to project its influence and wield its soft power, came at a time when democracies from Australia to the United States are increasingly suspicious of tacit Chinese state influences on their soil.

“The party used to lead the United Front behind a veil,” a government source, who declined to be named, told the Post.

“Under the new structure, it will no longer hide behind various government agencies.”

 The Communist Party is seeking to institutionalise its political power. Photo: Reuters

Under the new line-up, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission will report to the United Front Work Department, while the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office will be absorbed into the department as two internal bureaus, according to the document dated March 19.

At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party will also upgrade four “leading groups” headed by Xi into “commissions”.

The move will enhance the president’s control over the relevant fields.

The State Computer Network and Information Security Management Centre, the office in charge of China’s “Great Firewall”, will be moved under the central commission on internet security, from the control of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The central leading group responsible for protecting China’s maritime interests, meanwhile, will be merged into Central Commission of Foreign Affairs Works – a move that highlights the importance of maritime issues on the leadership’s agenda.

In addition, the Chinese Communist Party will set up a new “Rule-by-Law Commission” and an auditing commission. A new leading group on education will be set up as well.

The Publicity Department of the Central Committee, the propaganda arm of the party, will have a direct control over all publishing and movies, according to the document.

Are iPhones Bad for Kids?

March 11, 2018

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life
By Anya Kamenetz
266 pp. PublicAffairs. $27.

Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
251 pp. Templeton Press. $24.95.

There’s one in every neighborhood: a parent who allows unlimited screen time. They exist to make the rest of us feel better. Our own offspring might spend hours texting or watching cartoons. But at least we have rules. Our kids can sustain a conversation, cope with fleeting moments of boredom and last a birthday party without demanding a video game.

When we pass these other families in the supermarket, their dazed toddlers staring into iPads, we think — smug but terrified — we’re not that bad.

Or are we? Two new books about kids and screens — Anya Kamenetz’s “The Art of Screen Time” and Naomi Schaefer Riley’s “Be the Parent, Please” — examine the evidence and offer advice for anxious parents. How much screen time is too much? Is “digital media” like food: O.K. if you consume good-quality ingredients, in moderation? Or is it more like cigarettes or even heroin, possibly unsafe at any dose? And might screens be just another way to guilt parents — and mothers, in particular — into thinking that we’re not doing enough?

Alas, the evidence is incomplete. Researchers aren’t allowed to overstimulate a random sample of babies to see what happens to their brains. (Though as Kamenetz says, you can do this to mice, and they go a little nuts.) Scientists even have trouble running studies in which some participants watch less; one said he could get families to reduce their screen times only by 20 minutes. And the iPad hasn’t even celebrated its eighth birthday.

But there are worrying correlations. Kids who watch more than two hours of TV per day have double the risk of childhood obesity. Those who watch screens before bed sleep less, making it harder to concentrate and learn. And simulated violence can desensitize children to real-life suffering, and is linked to increased anxiety and fear.


CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

Kamenetz, lead digital education correspondent for National Public Radio, is the more soothing voice. She points out that not every child — or even every heavy user — will suffer ill effects. As with food allergies, ”for lots of kids, a peanut is just a peanut.” She advocates an approach inspired by Michael Pollan’s well-known dictate on food: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.” (Her most upsetting conclusion, echoed by Riley and the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that parents should watch alongside toddlers.)

Riley, a former New York Post columnist who is a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sees an insidious cultural problem and a moral failure by parents. She compares screens to alcohol and gambling: Not every child will get hooked, but it’s better to be safe. And by handing our kids screens, we are choosing “not to parent.”

Riley advocates radically scaling back children’s screen time, and intensively surveilling online behavior. “Many kids will be fine even without these restrictions, and some kids will fall into trouble even with them. But as parents, it’s time for us to stop playing the odds.”

I might bristle at Riley’s scolding tone, but I recognize her description of a friend who’s in a “constant low-level battle” over screens with her three sons. “It was like watching her swat flies. As soon as she sent one child outside or got one to read a book, another would sneak on to a computer.”

Even if digital media isn’t diabolical, it has opportunity costs. The hours kids spend on devices is time they could have spent reading, studying, interacting with other humans or frolicking outdoors (there’s a bit of nature worship in Riley’s book).

Of course, many parents can’t go an hour without consulting screens themselves. In a 2014 study, researchers in a fast-food restaurant observed caregivers on smartphones, ignoring children’s bids for attention. The caregivers finally scold the children or issue “robotic” instructions, sometimes without even looking up.

But is this proof that screens make us terrible parents? If we’re using them while driving, then definitely. Car crashes are a leading cause of death in school-age children, and cellphones are a factor in a quarter of fatal crashes.

But in the rest of life, the net impact is less clear. Modern parents spend far more time with their children than parents did in the 1960s. Yes, a mother reading work emails at the playground has briefly stopped interacting with her child. But Kamenetz — a mother of two — says if she couldn’t do that, she’d need to be at the office.


CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

We know it’s crucial to stimulate and speak to young children, and our generation of parents complies to a possibly unprecedented — and exhausting — degree. Kamenetz notes that we need occasional breaks from this. She bemoans “an ideological stance that judges mothers for not being fully available to their children at all times and that scapegoats working-class families in particular.”

Class issues buzz around conversations about screen time. We’ve all read about the Silicon Valley executives who won’t let their children go online. Mothers who used to boast that their babies drank only breast milk now claim their preschoolers have never touched an iPad. (These same children will later be dispatched to pricey, screen-free summer camps.)

Low-income families — and especially single parents — can’t afford to police their children’s screen use as assiduously. Kamenetz writes that this requires more social supports, like guaranteed paid parental leave. I’d argue that universal health care and a higher minimum wage would help, too.

Of course, screens are an issue even in countries with great social services. In 2016, the city of Helsinki ran a campaign warning Finnish parents that they were neglecting children by spending too much time online.

In France, where I live, parents are struggling to get their heads around the dangers. The government recently announced that, from September, it will ban phones in primary and secondary schools, for reasons of “public health.” There are permissive parents to scoff at here too, but they generally advocate setting firm limits. Meal times are typically sacrosanct, screen-free zones.

Most French parents already believe in a conclusion that Kamenetz and Riley endorse: If you don’t constantly entertain kids, they’ll learn to entertain themselves. And the French are suspicious of too much of anything. The biggest reason I hear for why kids don’t spend more time on devices isn’t that screens are terrible; it’s that they don’t have time.

That’s basically Kamenetz’s message too. Her best advice might be to prioritize other activities, and allow screens only afterward. “You will be more effective as a parent, and have more fun as a family, if you drop the guilt and embrace the good that screens have to offer, while balancing media with other priorities.”

Sleep is paramount: She recommends no screens before bedtime, and none in bedrooms, ever. And she advocates communication over surveillance, making questions like “what did you see online today?” part of dinnertime conversations.

I liked Kamenetz’s unpanicky, thoughtful critique. Both writers digest lots of material. (Kamenetz helpfully includes a four-page summary.) While it wasn’t thrilling to consume even well-written books on kids and screens, it was worth reflecting on the evidence, and reckoning with my family’s relationship to these consuming devices. Then I could return to checking my email.

EU firms lash out at new net privacy rules

March 7, 2018


© AFP/File | EU firms fear tech giants like Google will have even more power once the new rules come into force

PARIS (AFP) – Dozens of European media, telecom and internet firms criticised Wednesday the EU’s new online privacy rules, saying they will effectively hand US tech giants even greater power over user data.

On May 25, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force.

It is designed to protect users’ online privacy, but in an open letter titled “Europe cannot afford to miss the data revolution”, the companies said it will “reinforce already dominant players in the data economy”.

In their view, the rules “would threaten the development of European startups and innovative companies, online advertising, telecom operators, and other sectors alike; and would undermine the essential role of press and media in European democratic life”.

The European Parliament has adopted the regulation but European governments have yet to approve the text.

Under the new regulation, users will be asked once and for all whether to accept cookies, rather than every time they visit a new website.

Users will have the option of going invisible online, while the rules enshrine the so-called “right to be forgotten” legislation.

But the European Commission is concerned over the lack of awareness among both users and small firms of the imminent change.

– Who says no to cookies? –

Furthermore, it is unclear whether the bulk of users would ever opt out of allowing cookies while browsing — leaving them at the mercy of targeted advertising from the very tech giants that power their browsing and social media experiences.

While Google, Apple and Facebook are based in the United States, they will also have to apply the new regulations to their European users.

Nonetheless, the European firms fear they will bear the brunt of the changes, potentially depriving EU advertisers of user information they need to connect to consumers.

Among the signatories of the letter is a leading French media association, the SPQN — of which AFP is a member.

Other signatories include French telecom giants Orange and SFR, German group Deutsche Startups and the European Magazine Media Association.

Speaking to AFP, data company France Digitale’s co-chair Jean-David Chamboredon said: “We risk handing over the total monopoly to some operators, which will always find a way to collect user data.”

The US tech giants already an outsize role in the French online advertising market, capturing a whopping 92 percent of the sector’s growth in 2017.

Indonesia blocks online-blogging site Tumblr over porn

March 6, 2018


© AFP/File | Tumblr has fallen foul of Indonesia’s government
JAKARTA (AFP) – Indonesia has blocked online blogging service Tumblr over pornographic content, the government said Tuesday, in Jakarta’s latest crackdown on obscenity.

The government of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation blocked Tumblr on Monday, saying the New York-based company had not replied to its February letter demanding that pornographic content be scrubbed from the platform within 48 hours.

The ministry of technology and information said it had received multiple reports about obscene content on the microblogging and social networking website, which has about 400 million blogs on its service globally.

“After investigating, we found at least 360 Tumblr accounts contained pornographic content,” ministry spokesman Noor Iza told AFP.

Tumblr could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jakarta in 2016 threatened to block Tumblr’s service in the country of 260 million but did not follow through on the threat.

The ministry on Tuesday said Tumblr would be accessible again once the company complied with the government’s order.

The shutdown was met with anger by some internet users.

“Those 360 accounts are less than one percent” of the total users, one said on Twitter.

“It’s like burning an entire forest just to kill one worm. You might as well block Google.”

Indonesia brought in a tough anti-pornography law in 2008 that criminalises any work deemed obscene.

It blocked popular video-sharing website Vimeo in 2014 after accusing it of hosting pornographic content.

Last November the government threatened to ban social network Facebook and messaging app WhatsApp unless the platforms removed obscene Graphics Interchange Format material from their services.

This year Google pulled Blued, one of the world’s largest gay dating apps, from the Indonesian version of its online store in response to government demands.

China’s Xi steps up as the leader of the unfree world — A muscular brand of Chinese nationalism

February 27, 2018
 February 27 at 12:59 AM
The Washington Post

On Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party made an unexpected announcement: The party will propose scrapping the line in China’s constitution that limits presidents to “no more than two consecutive terms.” That means President Xi Jinping, who just started his second five-year term, probably will rule well beyond 2023.

When Xi came to power half a decade ago, some commentators in the West imagined him leading his nation down the road of economic and political change. Instead, as we’ve discussed before, Xi ushered in a stiffening authoritarianism, purging thousands of political opponents, squeezing the already narrow space for civil society and presiding over the creation of a cutting-edge 21st- century surveillance state. The latest news only confirms his desire to bring China firmly under his grasp.

“It is the strongest sign yet that Xi intends to hold on to power, potentially taking China back toward one-man rule,” my colleague Emily Rauhala noted.

The two-term limit was imposed in the wake of China’s traumatic Cultural Revolution, when the country was still reeling from the bloody despotism and personal whims of the long-ruling Mao Zedong. The amendment to the constitution “reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression,” Jerome Cohen, a noted Chinese legal expert at New York University, wrote in a blog post.

“Find the thing you love and stick with it.” Cute, creative and devastatingly clever criticism of Xi Jumping and his government’s move to eliminate presidential term limits in China.

The signs of a deepening dictatorship under Xi have been present for quite some time. Human rights activists have been jailed, internal party debate subdued and censorship ratcheted up — including against memes on social media that mocked Xi’s budding imperial rule. In recent years, Beijing has also taken dramatic steps to rein in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. Once considered an incubator of liberal values that could help spread democracy and liberalism to the Chinese mainland, the former British colony is now increasingly at risk of losing its cherished freedoms.

My colleague Simon Denyer suggested there are some practical reasons Xi wants to remain in power: “Xi has already used his power to implement a far-reaching crackdown on corruption, even if it has also been used to instill obedience and eliminate rivals. He is equally determined to improve the way the party governs China, eliminate poverty and even improve the country’s poisoned environment.” But, he added, there are obvious risks: “Joseph Stalin and Mao both illustrated the dangers of centralizing too much power in one man’s hands, because one lonely man at the top can easily become paranoid.”

In the near term, Xi may have little to fear when it comes to internal challenges. But China’s economic growth is slackening, and some critics point to looming structural crises on the horizon that could further shock the system — and possibly give momentum to potential rivals among the various cliques and power centers within China’s high leadership.

“Xi’s ability to push this decision through in the short-term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power,” wrote veteran China watcher Richard McGregor. “But the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else — that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay.”

Souvenir necklaces with portraits of Xi on sale in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Feb. 26. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Xi’s move should also be seen in a broader global context. For years, Chinese officials and state media have rolled their eyes at Western lectures about China’s undemocratic political system. They pointed to the dysfunction gripping democracies elsewhere, contrasting it to the economic and diplomatic successes achieved under one-party rule. And now, they are casting Xi’s tightening grip as the right system for an uncertain geopolitical moment.

“In the era of globalization and the Internet, although China has stunning economic might, it has not yet become a leading power in terms of ideology and information,” the Global Times, China’s oft-provocative English-language mouthpiece, wrote in an editorial. “The most influential value system in the world now is the Western value system established by the U.S. and Europe. It has shaped and affected quite a few Chinese people’s mind-sets. But some key parts of the Western value system are collapsing. Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating.”

The value system floated here isn’t wholly unique to China. Xi propagates a muscular brand of Chinese nationalism, steeped in appeals to a rosy imperial past and visions of a triumphant future — not unlike other illiberal autocrats elsewhere. Speaking to Denyer, Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, invoked Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has also challenged the Western-led status quo while playing the part of the indispensable father of his nation.

“Xi is a big admirer of Putin,” Lam said. He added: “The most reliable legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is nationalism. Nationalism is very important to both the legitimacy of the party and Xi himself.”

If Xi is issuing a new challenge, it has yet to provoke much of a response. The muted reaction from Western governments to Xi’s power grab underscored the calculation many governments seem to have made: In the age of nuclear threats and budding trade wars, strong, stable Chinese leadership — no matter the costs at home — is preferred to fragility or uncertainty in Beijing.

When pressed for comment Monday, White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump “has talked about term limits in a number of capacities during the campaign and something that he supports here in the United States, but that’s a decision that’s up to China.”

“Thirty years ago, with what Xi did … there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path,’ and so on,” Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist and former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told the New York Times. “Nobody is making that argument today.”

Is balance of trust shifting from political to social? — Thoughts on government and public trust

February 13, 2018

This is an excerpt from a speech by Mr Peter Ho, former head of civil service and now senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic Futures, at a conference on public trust last week. The conference was organised by the Behavioural Sciences Institute of the Singapore Management University.

Public trust in government is one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy, credibility and sustainability of governments are built.

Today, it is not hard to see what happens when public trust is eroded. Renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama refers to public trust as the “currency” of governance, a means to account for transaction costs between government and the people. This is because it is a key social lubricant for information to flow, and it brings about more efficient information exchange.

Public trust helps to lower the transaction costs in any social, economic and political system, for instance, by improving compliance with rules and regulations. It is also necessary for the fair and effective functioning of the government in service delivery and the provision of infrastructure for the citizens.

Particularly in times of crisis, public trust empowers the government to act decisively. Bitter medicine is more easily swallowed when there is public trust. It helps to resolve tensions over emotionally charged issues such as resource sharing, distribution of benefits, and perceptions of free-riding.

But public trust – which is invariably hard-earned – can be quickly undermined. In recent years, many developed countries have seen the rise of anti-establishment populism, marked by a strong distrust of the elites. In the June 2016 referendum, ignoring advice of the establishment – including the political and business elites – the British people voted for Brexit. And at the end of the same year, Mr Donald Trump – a rank outsider – won the US presidential election by defeating establishment rivals both from within his party as well as from the Democratic camp.

Arguably, these results, and the success of fringe movements elsewhere, have been fuelled by people who have lost their trust in government and its institutions, who are deeply disenchanted by corruption, elitism, economic inequality – and by the inability of governments to deal with them. They no longer believe that the government will act on their behalf. This “radical uncertainty” is most pronounced among middle classes, and has led to a loss of belief in middle-class narratives, and to the rise of populism and xenophobia in many countries around the world.

An anti-Brexit protester in London last month. An emerging line of argument, says Mr Peter Ho, is that the Brexit vote is a harbinger of a global change in the nature of public trust, where instead of flowing up and down from people to government, it
An anti-Brexit protester in London last month. An emerging line of argument, says Mr Peter Ho, is that the Brexit vote is a harbinger of a global change in the nature of public trust, where instead of flowing up and down from people to government, it is now also flowing horizontally to other people, algorithms and bots. PHOTO: REUTERS



This decline in public trust contributes to another global trend: the emergence of a world where truth matters less, and people are more willing to offer diverse views with little substance and no evidence, and then taking no responsibility for expressing them.

This is accentuated by Internet anonymity, which allows people to disseminate irresponsible views to a wide audience – “fake news”. Such falsehoods can severely erode trust, and very quickly. Falsehoods, no matter how ridiculous, are often believed to be true if repeated often enough, or because of the confirmation bias.

You may recall that the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, reflecting the highly charged political 12 months that saw Brexit and the election of Mr Trump. In the “post-truth” world, objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals and personal beliefs.

This could become a real problem not just because of an evident loss of public trust, but also because it could lead governments to only say what they feel are plausible and intuitively true without presenting any evidence. It could diminish the importance of evidence-based policymaking, and a general decline in the quality – and reliability – of governance, accentuating distrust in government.

In the latest 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, the “global” level of public trust in government was 43 per cent. At this level, a state of “distrust” exists in the world. Of the 28 countries surveyed, the only ones that registered a score classified as “trust” by Edelman were in Asia: Singapore, India, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and China.

In a similar vein, only 14 per cent of respondents from 38 countries in a 2017 Pew Research Centre survey expressed “a lot” of trust in their governments to do what was right for their countries. Once again, in the Pew survey, it was the respondents in Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan African countries who responded more positively about trust in government, not in the Western liberal democracies.

A trend seems to be emerging.


Why has a country like Singapore fared better than many in terms of public trust? Some answers to this question can be found in the Sars crisis. On Feb 25, 2003, the Sars virus entered Singapore and then spread with frightening speed through the hospital system. It confounded our medical authorities in the beginning, as it did experts around the world, including the World Health Organisation (WHO). They did not know how the virus spread, and why it spread so aggressively. The fatality rate was shocking. By the time the Sars crisis was declared over in Singapore, 33 people had died out of the 238 who had been infected.

It was a very frightening time for Singaporeans. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told the BBC in an interview in April 2003 that this was a “crisis of fear”. It was critical that the government managed the fear, otherwise the larger challenge of dealing with Sars would have been made even more difficult.

In this regard, the dissemination of trusted information proved to be vital. During the Sars outbreak, Singapore took a transparent approach. The Government laid bare the uncertainties and risks during Sars, even as other countries sought to reassure their citizens – without basis – that Sars was under control. Singaporean leaders told people not only what they knew, but also what they did not know. They avoided providing false assurances. In the BBC interview, then PM Goh explained: “I’m being realistic because we do not quite know how this will develop.”

This transmission of information – transparently, laying bare uncertainties, and acting with empathy – was built on an underlying foundation of trust, not just of the people in the Government, but also of the Government in the people. Singaporeans trusted the Government for its effectiveness and integrity. The Government trusted Singaporeans to deal with the uncertainty as the Sars outbreak unfolded. This two-way trust, between the Government and the people, formed a deep source of national resilience in Singapore during the Sars crisis.

Contrast this to what happened after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was declared an international health emergency by the WHO in August 2014. Several cases emerged in the United States, with the majority imported, and only two nurses contracting the disease in the US directly from an Ebola patient they were treating.

A few American states – New York, New Jersey and Illinois – imposed a mandatory quarantine on anyone returning to the US who had direct contact with Ebola patients in West Africa. But two doctors – who should have known better – violated their quarantines, creating havoc for the authorities in the subsequent contact-tracing efforts. A nurse who was quarantined even sued the Governor of New Jersey.

The reactions in the US stand in contrast to the trust that Singaporeans placed in the Government to stem the spread of Sars, despite a much larger slate of draconian measures on the table than just quarantine. These contrasting examples – Sars in Singapore and Ebola in the United States – together make an object lesson on the importance of public trust, and what happens when it does not exist.

But it also raises the question of whether the authorities in the US were contending with a situation of low public trust, compared to the high level of public trust demonstrated in Singapore in 2003 during the Sars crisis.

And lest we think that Singapore’s response was a paragon to be emulated, let us consider what might happen if Sars were to occur today, 15 years later in 2018, when the social media – and not necessarily the mainstream media – could emerge as the dominant platform for communication and diffusion of information.


It took less than half a century for Singapore to move out of the Third World and enter the First World. But in tandem, within less than two generations, societal demands have moved from the basic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, such as food, shelter, water and security, rising towards the more complex psychic needs at the top of the hierarchy, such as self-esteem, self-actualisation and transcendence, which are needs that all governments find very difficult to service.

This represents a tectonic shift in Singapore society, and significantly, it is taking place at a time when technology is also changing and accelerating. With the complex interplay between societal changes and rapid technological advances, acceleration gives little time for government and society to adapt. It leads to consequences that can be very surprising, and to outcomes that are very disturbing.

Because of the confirmation bias that many of us are afflicted with, technology – the social media in particular – now enables people to retreat into online echo chambers that narrow down information and reinforce already-held beliefs. It becomes easy to ignore, or to simply shut our eyes to contrary views that are in conflict with our beliefs and outlooks. More information does not yield better decisions.

With social media today, falsehoods and fake news can quickly spread through networks, unchecked and with an unstoppable momentum. Indeed in 2016 – the year of Brexit and Mr Trump – the World Economic Forum identified online misinformation on a grand scale as one of the major risks to global society.

Former foreign minister George Yeo referred to the “disintermediation of hierarchies”. People are now gaining access to huge amounts of information, some of it consisting of Drums (distortion, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears) and magnified by online echo chambers, with the end result that our fears are verified, often baselessly.

Instead, suspicion of elites is growing, anger against the establishment is amplified, and the cycle of public distrust is magnified. The danger is that faith in government and its institutions may have already reached a critical tipping point in some countries.


The question is whether this is a global trend, and whether and how it will impact Singapore?

An emerging line of argument is that the Brexit vote and the election of Mr Trump are harbingers of a gigantic and global change in the nature of public trust. This line of argument relies on the hypothesis that instead of public trust flowing up and down a vertical street from the people to the government, to the politicians and the regulators, to the authorities and the experts, as it used to, it is now also beginning to flow horizontally, to other people, and even to programmes, algorithms and bots.

Today, we are already putting our faith in algorithms over humans in our daily lives, leaving them to decide what to read on our smartphones, what to buy, where to spend our money, where to travel and where to stay. Mr Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, even admits to consulting an AI robot aptly named Einstein who “sits” in at his senior-management meetings and advises on whether the human beings present have made faulty judgments.

Instead of public trust just being focused on the government, trust is being redistributed to many, enabled by technology – such as AI, big data and data analytics – and the social media. This is a trend of trust being distributed rather than being concentrated.

This trend, of distributed trust, helps us to understand why cryptocurrencies could be the future of money, and why blockchain technology, which is a distributed ledger system, could be used for everything from tracking the source of foods, to monitoring electronic health records, to selling our homes without the need for real estate agents.

If public trust is more distributed, what forms of government will emerge? I had earlier said that public trust has a “social” dimension because it also involves individuals’ trust in each other as citizens in the people sector.

Is it possible that in today’s world, technology is shifting the balance from the political to the social? Instead of public trust being reposed with the elites, experts and authorities in government, the argument being made is that trust today lies more with “the people” – families, friends, classmates, colleagues, even strangers who might share your same outlook. In other words, a transfer of trust is taking place, from institutions to individuals.

The #MeToo movement that started as a reaction to the outrageous sexual misconduct of one man in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, quickly became a digital wildfire, spreading first across the United States, and then across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom where it cost ministers and politicians their jobs.

Perhaps such things are happening because there is a loss of trust in government to police the commons, so society steps in to generate ground-up and more emergent solutions to governance.

It is certainly an age in which individuals matter as much as institutions because people, empowered perhaps by better education, but certainly by the social media, are becoming social influencers. We are now scoring and rating everything from restaurants to Uber drivers, helping to shape, almost instantly, the rise and fall of all sorts of businesses, while also creating reputation trails where one mistake or misdemeanour could follow us for the rest of our lives.

Perhaps we might see a more network-centric, mutually verifying, distributed approach to dealing with fake news. But it is not clear that such things will be the result of government intervention. Indeed, the paradox is that any effort by the government to dispel things like fake news is predicated on the level of trust that the people have in the government in the first place.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook the fact that it can also work the other way. A trust-scoring system – more formally called the Social Credit System – is being developed in China to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens, and could determine everything from a citizen’s job to whether they can get on a train or a plane. It may well find acceptance in other parts of the world, despite its Orwellian overtones.

In this world, in which public trust is disintermediated by the social media, the traditional notion that public trust is only about government and its institutions, taken on faith, kept in the hands of a few and operating behind closed doors, is going to be challenged. It is arguably a world of radical transparency. WikiLeaks demonstrates that you can run, but you cannot hide.

Given the importance of public trust to governing well, governments obviously must build trust as a valuable resource and guard against developments that may reduce it.

Where there is malicious intent in spreading falsehoods to cause alarm or disrupt society, governments must stand prepared to dispel them quickly, and take firm and decisive action against those who start or perpetuate such falsehoods intentionally. It should not come as a surprise that the Government in Singapore has set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, aka fake news.

But it is also important that governments are better prepared to function in and adapt to an environment of greater contestation and scrutiny, in which the balance between public trust at the focal point of government and its institutions is shifting to the many – the people.

In such an environment, perhaps there is a need for more consultation and greater interaction between the public sector and the people sector. This will require government to become less hierarchical, not just more whole-of-government, but also more whole-of-nation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline ‘Is balance of trust shifting from political to social?’.

Vietnam jails environmental blogger for 14 years

February 6, 2018

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Vietnamese prominent dissidents Hoang Duc Binh (R) and Nguyen Nam Phong stand at a court in Nghe An province, Vietnam February 6, 2018. Mandatory credit VNA/Bich Hue/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A court in central Vietnam jailed a prominent environmental blogger on Tuesday for 14 years for abusing his democratic freedom and opposing officials on duty, his lawyer said.

Vietnamese activist Hoang Duc Binh, commonly known as Hoang Binh, led several protests against authorities over the handling of a major environmental disaster caused by a steel plant being developed by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp in 2016.

Despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness towards social change, including gay, lesbian and transgender rights, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and does not tolerate criticism.

Binh received two seven-year prison sentences for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe state interests” and for “opposing officials on duty”, while a fellow activist Nguyen Nam Phong received a two-year term, their lawyer Ha Huy Son told Reuters by telephone.

“Binh said he was innocent, while Phong asked for a reduction of the sentence… The trial was conducted without evidence and objectivity; it was imposed,” Son said.

The 14-year jail term for Binh, 35, is one of the toughest sentences to have been delivered against an activist in Vietnam.

Another prominent blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom), received a 10-year term last year.

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Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh

“The sentences have been more and more severe, perhaps because of weaker interventions from the outsiders and foreigners, and also because the power holders think this sentence could have deterrence effect,” said Son, who has defended many more rights activists.

 Image result for Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, photos

Last week, Vietnam listed a U.S.-based group still loyal to the now defunct state of South Vietnam as a terrorist organization while the Communist nation jailed four men for flying the South Vietnamese flag last month.

Besides advocating on environmental issues, Binh also participated and called people to join an “independent union” in 2015, local news website Baonghean (Nghe An Newspaper) reported, citing authorities’ documents on Binh.

Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Scientists Working for Israel Reveal Top Secret Information Online, Stunning Defense Officials

January 30, 2018


Israel is trying to erase any trace of the information it has gone to great lengths to hide, but it has already been copied on other sites

The Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv, Israel.Dan Keinan

Israeli scientists in a state institution have published highly classified information on the internet that Israel has made a great and consistent effort to hide.

The incident sent shock waves across Israel’s security establishment, which is trying to take down the information, and prompted a flurry of accusations.

The information is the result of scientific work conducted in a state-run organization. The researchers received permission years ago from Amir Kane, who was the Defense Ministry’s director of security at the time. The scientists continued to publish material on the subject based on the original go-ahead without seeking further approval. The current director, Nir Ben Moshe, apparently was never asked to review the newer material.

When Haaretz asked members of the security establishment about the matter, officials blamed one another. Officials within the organization itself and the Defense Ministry’s Security Authority are divided over the question who was supposed to give notice that the scientists were publishing classified information. Officials within the organization assert that all the necessary permits for publication had been received, and that if there were changes in the circumstances, then the Security Authority should have notified them.

Defense establishment officials are now trying to erase any trace of the secret information from the web, but they have run into difficulties because the information was copied and is found on a number of platforms.

The Defense Ministry commented that the publication received all the necessary permits after informing all relevant authorities within the ministry.

China directs users to approved VPNs as firewall tightens

January 30, 2018


© AFP/File | A man uses a computer in an internet cafe in Beijing: China is tightening controls by curbing the use of VPNs

BEIJING (AFP) – China vowed Tuesday to force both local and foreign companies and individuals to use only government-approved software to access the global internet, as overseas firms fear losing unrestricted online services under an impending deadline.International companies and individuals have been fretting for months over whether Beijing would enforce new regulations curbing the use of virtual private networks (VPN).

The content accessible on China’s domestic internet is highly restricted. Google, Facebook and other foreign websites such as the New York Times and the BBC, and some email services, are blocked by the country’s Great Firewall of censorship.

One way to bypass the controls is by using a VPN, which can allow users to access the unfiltered global internet. This is where authorities are cracking down.

In January last year the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced it would be banning the use of unlicensed VPNs, with a deadline of March 31, 2018 to complete the crackdown.

MIIT chief engineer Zhang Feng told a news conference Tuesday that unapproved VPN operators are the target of the regulations.

For those “VPNs which unlawfully conduct cross-border operational activities, we want to regulate this”, Zhang said.

Many foreign individuals and businesses currently use VPN services unapproved by Chinese regulators. They are on tenterhooks as to whether China will shut down these service providers.

The inability to access certain online tools, internet censorship and cybersecurity are major headaches for foreign companies, according to a survey of US companies conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and released Tuesday.

Last summer tech giant Apple restricted its Chinese customers’ access to VPNs in the country, removing dozens of apps from its app store.

In December, a man in southern China was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for selling a VPN service on Alibaba’s Taobao and other marketplaces.

The new rules drive customers who want to access the global internet to approved state providers like China Mobile and China Unicom.

Those who want to access the global internet “can rent lines or networks from business operators which have set up international entry and exit ports in accordance with the law”, Zhang said.

He dismissed concerns that using China’s state-approved providers could jeopardise the security of business and individual data.

“These telecommunications enterprises only provide you with a channel, or a network, and are not able to see information related to your business,” he said.