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Official And Unofficial Truth

Singapore skyline.
Singapore. Photo by Keith Fulton.

In genuine democracies we recognize the difference between truth, a term that applies when we discuss matters of fact, and opinion, which is the point of view we reach once we consider the things that are true, or at least those we choose to believe are true.

An example of the former is “President Trump issues tweets that many Americans consider offensive.” An example of the latter is “President Trump should be removed from office because he sold out his country’s interest for personal benefit, which is an impeachable offense.” More people would take issue with the second statement than the first, although some would take issue with both. Many would have no problem with either. In this country, however, neither the statement of truth nor the statement of opinion could be subject to legal action for libel or defamation. That’s a truth for which every American ought to be grateful.

Some people promote the concept of personal or “lived” truth. This is typically an amalgam of an individual’s objective experience, subjective perception, preexisting biases and current opinion. Whether discussing truth in these terms is good or bad is a matter of opinion. Yet statements of personal truth are not actionable, either, unless they are packaged as factual statements that are both false and defamatory – and if the subject of the statement is a public figure, usually not even then.

Finally, there is “official” truth. The official truth is whatever a government says it is, regardless of whether it is actually true, or not, in the primary sense of the word. Official truth is a hallmark of authoritarian and totalitarian governments. It is also now a feature of the law in Singapore, which is democratic in form but authoritarian in substance. As a city-state that has been governed by a single party, and for the most part by a single family, since before it gained independence in 1965, Singapore does not meet Western definitions of freedom, even though it has a generally well-ordered society and seemingly satisfied populace.

Singapore belongs to Singaporeans. If they are happy with their form of government, including a constitution that promises free speech in one clause and then allows the government to restrict it in whatever ways it finds “necessary or expedient” to maintain “public order” or other government interests in the next, it’s generally not a problem for foreigners. The exception is when the city-state’s government seeks to export its crabbed view of freedom, and thus makes it our problem. Singapore has a lengthy history of doing exactly that.

In the past, Singapore relied primarily on its draconian libel and defamation laws to threaten foreign writers with jail (if they were within its jurisdiction) and to punish their publishers with large fines, particularly if they declined to print retractions. Many prominent Western publications have caved to these demands, despite the fact that Singapore is a trivially small market of less than 6 million people. Its role as an Asian business hub allows it to punch far above its global weight when it comes to restricting press freedom. Still, I find it somewhat bizarre that many of the companies that kowtow to Singapore accept bans from vastly larger China rather than submit to that country’s restrictions. This, however, is the publications’ choice to make.

Lately Facebook has been in the news for bowing to a new Singapore law that requires publishers to either delete posts the city-state’s rulers deem incorrect or include a corrective notice on them. Alex Tan, a blogger who is an Australian citizen, posted a column about an allegedly wrongful arrest of a whistleblower, along with derogatory comments about Singapore’s election system. Singapore’s government demanded that Tan remove or correct the post, which he refused to do. Reuters reported that the authorities have said Tan, who does not live in Singapore, is under investigation. Violating the law triggers harsh fines and up to 10 years in prison for those under the government’s jurisdiction. In the meantime, Singapore turned to Facebook.

According to various news outlets, Facebook responded by appending a notice – visible only to the platform’s users in Singapore – stating: “Facebook is legally required to tell you that the government of Singapore says this post has false information.”

Although this is the first reported instance of an online platform appending such a disclaimer under Singapore’s new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, it is far from the only example of foreign censorship exported to a U.S.-based internet company. Reuters reported that in the first six months of 2019, Facebook blocked content nearly 18,000 times in compliance with local laws in the countries where it operates. Meanwhile, Google and other providers have pushed back against the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” legislation. In September, Google won a ruling by the European Court of Justice that France (in that particular case) could only require the search engine to delete information from certain searches in Europe, rather than globally.

My own writings about Singapore have likely made it legally unsafe for me to travel there under its current regime. I would not expose myself to its press laws even to the extent of passing through its important hub airport. I suspect Facebook would not let me promote this post to audiences in that country in the first place, but if I did, there is some chance the government might order it taken down or “corrected.” (They would hardly be the first to tell me my opinions are “false,” but they would be the first to back that viewpoint with legal action if they did so.)

I can travel to most of Europe without any such concerns. Even there, though, I recognize that local concepts of press and speech freedom are more limited than ours. The sweeping language of the First Amendment represents our society’s commitment to the belief that truth will emerge from the marketplace of ideas and information, and that we are the best judges – based on information freely available for us to ingest and evaluate – of which statements are true, which are false, and which are opinions we may choose to share or not.

Even here, our commitment to the free flow of information periodically comes under threat. This has happened most often in wartime, but some of our political leaders seem to think the war on what they consider false news justifies restrictions that even a few years ago would have been considered un-American. There were reports last week that House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, want to remove some protections for internet platforms that are in the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, even though those protections already exist in American law. The lawmakers’ concern, reported by The Hill and other outlets, is that enshrining those protections in treaty commitments could make it harder for future Congresses to amend the law to impose future content restrictions here at home.

That would be taking a page from the Singapore playbook. No matter what news we believe to be true or fake, Americans of all political stripes should reject such maneuvers. The people, not our elected representatives, are the rulers of this country. As such, we have no need for anyone to tell us the official version of the truth.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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