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Digital literacy applies to tech giants, smart govts too

Digital literacy applies to tech giants, smart govts too

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 12 Jan 2021
Author: Irene Tham

Failure to grasp changing public norms and expectations in rapidly evolving digital world will result in backlash.

Digital literacy is not just about reading computer code, uploading social media posts, setting strong passwords or making e-payments.

It is also about knowing and responding to changing online norms and expectations, as well as taking action to be transparent and accountable.

Recently, negative reports surrounding two major proponents of digital literacy - social media giant Facebook and Singapore's Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) - have shown that they too need to take a hard look at their own digital readiness.

First, Facebook.

Its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg reportedly censored employees' discussion over whether to ban Mr Donald Trump from the platform after the United States President was widely seen as supporting the rioters who stormed the US Capitol last Wednesday with claims of election fraud.

Google-owned Twitter's prompt response made Facebook's delayed action look inadequate - an afterthought. Twitter almost immediately removed the relevant videos and suspended Mr Trump's account for 24 hours, followed by a permanent ban two days later.

Facebook's lack of speed in dealing with the extreme situation, where five people have died and scores have been arrested, attracted brickbats.

Even after the social media giant permanently suspended the US President's accounts on Facebook and Instagram last Thursday, people still questioned Mr Zuckerberg's motives.

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from the US state of Virginia, told The Guardian that Facebook's isolated actions "are both too late and not nearly enough".

Facebook's delayed suspension of Mr Trump's account adds to its many failures to aggressively crack down on disinformation and hate speech for which the firm has already attracted massive criticism - externally as well as internally.

Now, let us take a look at what has been happening in Singapore.

When digital contact tracing app TraceTogether was launched in March last year, the SNDGO, the key body behind digitalisation in the public sector, said the data collected would be used only for contact tracing in Singapore's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some nine months later and after the public was promised on multiple occasions that TraceTogether data would be used "only" for contact tracing purposes, the SNDGO updated TraceTogether's online privacy statement with other uses. On the same day, Parliament also heard that police could use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.

Public outcry ensued, after which the SNDGO said a law would be passed to formalise assurances made earlier that data from the TraceTogether contact tracing programme would be used only in criminal investigations into serious offences including murder, terrorism and rape.

To be sure, the cases of Facebook and the SNDGO are completely unrelated. They are similar in that both organisations failed to comprehend the changing public norms and expectations in a rapidly evolving digital world.

Savvy users and citizens are increasingly calling for greater sensitivity to issues such as ethics and privacy.

Facebook, as a core mass communications infrastructure, is expected to use its wide reach to promote civil rights, among many things. The reverse also applies: It is expected to crack down on disinformation and hate speech, both of which have grown and continue to reach a massive global audience through it.

Specifically, Facebook critics believe that Mr Trump could have been stopped immediately when he was provoking an assembled mob to break the law, as he was arguably doing last Wednesday, even though freedom of expression in US law forbids censorship.

Similarly, a digitally savvy government has to anticipate that there would be privacy concerns with the use of more and more potentially intrusive digital tools.

Being transparent at the start is key. Forgetting to inform the public of exceptions - in this case, TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code - will not build trust and win hearts and minds in the long run.

Transparency is also one of the key principles outlined in Singapore's award-winning artificial intelligence (AI) ethics framework that was launched at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The framework aims to promote trust in the use of cutting-edge tools like AI by providing references and a checklist to help organisations roll out AI tools ethically.

One of the questions in the checklist is: "Did your organisation consider whether the decision to use AI for a specific use case is consistent with its core values and/or societal expectations?"

The same question can be put to Facebook and the SNDGO, and with significant consideration given to changing norms.

In a rapidly evolving digital era, ignorance is no longer bliss. Knowing that people are concerned about ethics and privacy is one thing. Knowing how to behave under the new norms is what makes one digitally literate.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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