Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hoax posting of Lee Kuan Yew's death a lesson in media manipulation

Recipe for media manipulation:
* Pick a breaking news event where the inevitable appears likely.
* Take one seemingly legit screen shot.
* Add a terse line that mimicks Singapore Government prose.
* Factor in the tight timelines in newsrooms racing to beat one another to report breaking news.
* Sit back and watch the end result.

Last night's (Wednesday 18 March) confusion over whether or not former Prime Minister Lee  Kuan Yew had died is an example of the speed with which hoax postings can take a life of their own.

We've been ingrained not to believe everything one sees in cyberspace.

And so, when the mainstream media - particularly a foreign satellite TV channel - updated its viewers with a breaking news announcement of LKY's "death", the effect on Singaporeans waiting with bated breath was electrifying.

Screen shots were swapped via Whatsapp. And the PMO website probably saw a spike in traffic as netizens refreshed the page repeatedly for fresh leads.

This episode is instructive particularly for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Communications (an upsized and reconstituted Public Affairs Directorate) because it shows how mainstream media organisations can be duped by info ops.

In the case of the LKY episode, all the damage control that took place in Singapore (the Prime Minister's Office said it lodged a police report) could not undo the impressions that had already taken root in the minds of countless viewers who had caught the erroneous report and not the follow-up correction.

At best, news bulletins are updated hourly and there's a chance the newsroom would correct the error.

At worst, the nightly news bulletin is a once-off affair like the 9pm English News bulletin in Singapore. Such a situation gives legs to nuisance postings because people anxious for updates may think a hoax masquerading as an official media statement, is the most updated situation report.

When the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) goes into operations, an anxious Singapore waiting for news of how its citizens army fares in battle may be similarly duped. The knock-on effect on home front morale can only be imagined for a society where national resilience is a work-in-progress. This is particularly the case if casualties have been exaggerated or overstated by malicious hoax postings,

During WW2, the Germans claimed repeatedly to have sunk the Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal. They eventually did via submarine attack. But the baseless claims had to be resolutely defended by the British info ops machinery lest it dent morale at home.

Fast forward to another war, this time in the Falklands/Malvinas islands where the Argentines claimed to have sunk the RN carrier, HMS Invincible. An Argentine A-4 Skyhawk unit even went to the extent of painting a kill marking (see above) of the carrier's silhouette on one of its warplanes.

Military ops are fraught with uncertainty. Some operations, such as those involving airmobile units, are riskier than others and the loss exchange ratio is sobering to contemplate.

Hostile forces familiar with one's drawer plan could conceivably come up with their own where deception ops are used to shake and rattle morale on home ground. As with the LKY episode, this could take the form of plausible-sounding statements which are then unleashed upon an anxious yet unsuspecting audience.

Even if one's Public Relations (PR) machinery isn't asleep at the switch, the time and effort taken to correct misconceptions would put MINDEF/SAF in reaction mode. This puts us one step behind, always in catch up mode to every rabbit pulled out of the hat.

The one who fires first need not necessarily enjoy a first-mover advantage. That advantage will be eroded if Singaporeans are savvy enough not to take things at face value and trust the official media channels. The scam's value is further weakened if Singaporeans have the resilience and confidence that the SAF will prevail even if the setback is subsequently proven as correct.

Look around you.

Mull over those thoughts and ask yourself if we're there yet.

And your answer is.....

1 comment:

The said...

/// * Take one seemingly legit screen shot.
* Add a terse line that mimicks Singapore Government prose. ///

The prankster did both of these by using the actual webpage for the announcement of the passing of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, and erasing the "s" from Mrs and changing the date at the bottom.