27 July 2018

How Fake News Grows

Much to my surprise, I find myself at the centre of a tiny flurry of fake news.  While I have found it hugely entertaining and rather amusing, I have also been made aware of how pernicious it can be and how it can spiral out of control with unforeseen and unexpected implications.  I might be accused of a persecution complex or, more realistically, undue egotism, but by sharing the experience I vainly hope that those who sit idly at their computers happily typing whatever they want and then thoughtlessly posting it to the outer world, might realise that it can backfire terribly.

It began with a review.  A fairly innocuous one, I have to say, published in the Straits Times of Singapore and concerning a performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  As ever, I would have expected some involved to disagree, some to agree, and most to let it pass unnoticed over their heads.  I might have expected the conductor to take issue with my comments on his interpretation or some of the brass players to accuse me of an excess of superlatives on their playing, but not a single comment reached my ears from any of the performers or those directly concerned with the concert.  Reading the review again, I am struck by its generally positive and, at times, excessively enthusiastic tenor, not least in my unstinting praise of the combined choral forces of three different choirs in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  I certainly stick by every single word I wrote and every single word that the edited Straits Times version presented to the newspaper-buying public (I never saw what they posted on the online version, but I assume it was more-or-less the same as the print one).

Within 24 hours of the review’s publication, however, an acquaintance forwarded to me a comment which had appeared on Twitter (I’m not a Twitterer – it strikes me as a wholly ridiculous concept aimed at the illiterate and those with limited attention spans, and Donald Trump’s excessive use of it only proves my point).  Editing out the weird linguistic abbreviations and incoherent abuse, the gist of it was that I was guilty of reviewing a concert I had not attended.

Shortly afterwards, a more extended comment appeared on Facebook (again sent to me by an avid Facebookista) which hurled invective at me for rubbishing the Singapore International Choral Festival in my review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Literally minutes later, my editor at the Straits Times passed on to me for comment a virtually identical letter to the Facebook post, but purporting to come from a wholly different person. 

It was obvious that an orchestrated campaign of misinformation was underway, suggesting that I had not attended the Singapore International Choral Festival but had criticised it in my review.  Neither is true.  The Singapore International Choral Festival ran for several days, and, at the invitation of one of the overseas choirs participating, I had attended several sessions as well as the final concert and prize-giving (which took place the day after the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert).  I had fully intended to write an enthusiastic piece about it on this blog – I had very much enjoyed everything I heard and had been hugely impressed by many of the choirs.  I will not be doing that now!

I was able to tell my editor that the letter they had received was promulgating a totally false story.  I suggested that it had been prompted by the fact that I had praised generously the choirs taking part in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert, which probably rankled with those organising the Singapore International Choral Festival, who probably felt that the Straits Times had not given them the publicity they craved.  On top of that, after the personal abuse and invective thrown at me, the letters sent rehearsed in some detail the timetable and ideals of the Festival, leading to the obvious conclusion that they were merely writing in in order to gain some free publicity.

As a great supporter of choral singing, I had in my original review felt that it might be nice to mention the then ongoing choral festival as a way of underlining the world-standard quality of the home-grown combined choirs performing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Thus I had written; “In another part of Singapore this weekend, an International Choral Festival was taking place, but I doubt if any of those choirs exhibited the discipline, richness of tone and sheer professionalism of this 95-strong body of singers”.  I think that’s a great way of killing two birds with one stone – emphasising the outstanding quality of local singers brought in for a one-off concert, and pointing out Singapore’s vibrant choral scene to those many Straits Times readers who do not live or work in Singapore (the paper is available freely to all passengers on Singapore Airlines) – and were I to write the review again, I would use EXACTLY those same words in EXACTLY that context.

It was this comment which was seized upon by the fake news people who, determined to promote their agenda as the truth and all others as false, went on with the online campaign, now that the print media had closed the door to them.

Abusive posts have appeared, fake news-sites have pushed the issue as if it is significant, and people who have never met me, heard of me or have ever even been interested in what I do, now feel empowered to hurl personal abuse at me for the ultimate incompetence of reviewing a concert I did not attend (while I did not review a festival which I did attend!). Someone even found an online profile of me dating from the 1990s to show how unqualified I was to review the Singapore International Choral Festival (which I did not!).  I was accused of dismissing every choir outside Singapore as second rate, of being rude to foreign choirs visiting Singapore and of ignorantly claiming that every choir participating in the Singapore International Choral Festival was second-rate and that its adjudicating panel was stuffed with musical ignoramuses.  In short, within days of an innocuous review praising three Singapore choirs, I was being accused of being both vehemently anti-Singapore and aggressive pro-Singapore, of being ignorantly anti-choir and blindly pro-choir, and of possessing extreme ignorance and showing calculated rudeness.  I’d like to think none of those accusations has even a scintilla of truth about them.

With any orchestrated online campaign against something, eventually a counter orchestration will arise, and, true enough, recent posts have appeared rubbishing those who rubbish me.  Both sets of rubbishers are guilty of peddling fake news, for one comment made suggested that the real reason behind the abuse hurled at my original review was that the person orchestrating it had a particular axe to grind and was using my review as the whetstone.

And here we have the real danger of fake news.  A real person was named, the name being the same as the name on the letter sent to my editor at Straits Times.  This person has some official connection with the Singapore International Choral Festival and is also fairly well known in Singapore choral circles.  Whether or not they were the orchestrator of the campaign, or even the true originator of the letter sent to Straits Times, I have no way of knowing  - I imagine most online abuse hides behind false names and aliases – but the damage is done.  It has been said that this person was rejected as conductor of one or more of the combined Singapore choirs brought in for the Polovtsian Dances and by abusing the choirs in that performance, they were attempting to undermine the successful candidate as music director.

So, from a single ill-conceived and iller-considered Tweet to a flurry of online abuse on a plethora of platforms, the abuse has moved on from me and turned back on to my apparent abusers.  What gets lost in all this squalid and puerile name-calling is the one basic fact that the combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Singapore Symphony Children’s Choirs are fabulous and that the Singapore International Choral Festival was a brilliant display of excellent choral singing. 

I hope this blog post goes a little way to restore some kind of sanity and remind us that we should all be working in concert for the good of music.


  1. Well done for keeping your equinimity in the face of on line lynch mobs.

  2. The reason why your review went viral and you were widely panned is because “In another part of Singapore this weekend, an International Choral Festival was taking place, but I doubt if any of those choirs exhibited the discipline, richness of tone and sheer professionalism of this 95-strong body of singers” suggests that the choirs participating in the choral festival were inferior in discipline, tone and professionalism to the SSC.