PM Lee's libel suit against Leong Sze Hian: Lawyer Lim Tean questions independence, credibility of expert who says fake news spreads faster

SINGAPORE – An expert witness on Wednesday (Oct 7) said a Facebook post sharing an article with “shocking” allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would have spread more quickly than articles correcting the fake news.

Dr Phan Tuan Quang from the Hong Kong University Business School in a report submitted to court for the defamation trial against blogger Leong Sze Hian had estimated that Mr Leong’s post would have appeared on the Facebook news feeds of 11,749 users.

But Mr Leong’s lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, said the report was simply “guesswork”, pointing out that the academic did not have actual data about the Facebook post to work with.

The virality of Mr Leong’s post, which contained a link to an article falsely linking PM Lee to the 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia, came under scrutiny on the second day of the hearing, with PM Lee’s lawyers contending that the post would have – conservatively – been seen by several hundred Singaporeans, and Mr Lim denying it.

Dr Phan, an associate professor of innovation and information management whom PM Lee’s lawyers said has researched social media for over 15 years and published academic papers on the topic in top-ranked journals, had said that at the very minimum, about 200 to 400 Singaporeans would have clicked on the link to the article in the post.

These were very conservative estimates that took into account factors such as that the Government had put out rebuttals to the article which had been widely published by news outlets, he added.

But Mr Lim called these estimates into question, saying Dr Phan “had hardly any data, or evidence to work on, and your entire report is based on a series of assumptions”.

He added: “I put it to you that your analysis is really guesswork… not really expert evidence at all.”

Disagreeing, Dr Phan said he had worked with Facebook’s data science teams quite extensively and published four papers on their dataset.

His estimates were based on public Facebook data and statistical analysis, he added. “What I’m presenting is both public research and expert comments and views on how many people might have seen the post… It’s not baseless.”

And while he did not get to see Mr Leong’s Facebook post, which was taken down by Nov 10, 2018, Dr Phan said he did see screen shots of the post and Mr Leong’s timeline.

He also said the numbers he quoted were the “least number of people” who might have seen the post.

On why the post would have spread quickly, Dr Phan said the “shocking” allegations – including that PM Lee had allowed the banks here to abet former Malaysian premier Najib Razak to launder money from 1MDB – had meant that the post and article would have caught people’s eyes and been shared more readily.

The allegations had lent the post and the article a “novelty” factor, which researchers have found contribute to the virality of fake news.

Mr Lim countered that many news reports have been published about the long-running IMDB saga, saying it could not have been novel by the time the false article was published.

Dr Phan replied: “It is novel because of the connection with Mr Lee… (the article) was quite shocking, that’s why it was covered… Otherwise, it would not be mentioned and we wouldn’t be here.”

He added that based on his research, fake news moves faster than real news and can reach a “maximum penetration” in 1,000 minutes, or about 16 hours.

This means a particular post by a person can reach his friends and friends of his friends, all the way down a chain that is 15 levels removed from him.

Referring to news reports about the various government agencies and officials refuting allegations in the article, Mr Lim asked Dr Phan if people who saw Mr Leong’s post might have seen the news reports and been aware that the article is fake news.

Mr Phan said yes, but added that he had taken this into consideration in determining the spread of the post.

He also agreed with Mr Lim that more people might have seen the rebuttals than the number who saw Mr Leong’s post.

But there was reason to believe the people who saw Mr Leong’s post may not be the same people who saw the Government’s rebuttals in mainstream media news outlets such as The Straits Times and CNA, he added.

“It’s been well studied that people who follow certain characters or personalities on social media are looking for certain information,” he said, adding that the algorithm of Facebook’s news feed will prioritise content that people often read.

‘Not independent’

Mr Lim also said Dr Phan could not be considered an independent expert because he previously received research grants from the Singapore Government and its agencies when he was a professor at the National University of Singapore from August 2011 to May this year.

“Your evidence is tainted by the fact that you have a past relationship with the Singapore Government, of which (Mr Lee) is the head,” he said.

But Dr Phan said it was common for academics to work on research projects involving government bodies and to get such grants.

As an academic, he had the freedom to do unbiased research, he added.

He noted that the direction that research takes is not decided by one party but by a team of researchers, including those outside Singapore.

The grants were objectively awarded by an assortment of institutions, he said.

Leong Sze Hian not taking the stand

After a lunch break, Mr Lim told Justice Aedit Abdullah that Mr Leong would not be taking the stand to be cross-examined, saying it was not necessary to do so as the case was so “frivolous and vexatious” that it should be “laughed out of court”.

He added that most of the points brought up by PM Lee’s lawyers were legal points which Mr Leong could not answer in cross-examination, and could be dealt with in his submissions.

He also said he was satisfied with what he had got from cross-examining PM Lee on Tuesday.

To this, PM Lee’s lawyer, Mr Davinder Singh, pointed out that Mr Lim had said in his opening statement that Mr Leong would present himself for cross-examination.

Mr Singh added Mr Leong had also said in Facebook posts and interviews that he would fight PM Lee in court not just for himself, but for his supporters and Singaporeans at large.

“We have a situation where (Mr Lee) has turned up in court and gone into the stand unafraid of any questions and ready to defend his position,” he said.

“And yet the person who alleges that he has abused the process of the court and has turned tail and fled. This is deeply disappointing… I would add just one thing, your honour – this is something that comes as no surprise.”

The hearing was adjourned until November.

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