Fake news: Current laws 'offer limited remedies'

Law Minister K. Shanmugam.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Examples show falsehoods can cause real harm, says Shanmugam

The Government is seriously considering how to address the issue of fake news, and will announce its position once a review is completed, Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

There are limited remedies to deal with falsehoods under current laws, he said. For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing that it is false.

But, he added: "The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. So we need to do more."

Chua Chu Kang GRC MPs Yee Chia Hsing and Zaqy Mohamad had asked about fake news, which has become a global concern of late.

 
 

Mr Shanmugam said one had to assume it "can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign countries".

"We have already seen examples of that - to get into your public's mind, to destabilise your public, to psychologically weaken them and impact your agencies," he said. "That is a very serious threat, and it will be naive for us to believe that governments or state agencies do not engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do."

He cited examples to show fake news was not about "trivial factual inaccuracies, but falsehoods that can cause real harm". Last year, a man opened fire on a pizza restaurant in the United States after a fake news story claimed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a paedophilia ring there. Commentators have suggested it can be a powerful tool to interfere in domestic politics, with misleading stories fuelling xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments before the Brexit referendum, and attempts to sway upcoming polls in Germany and France.

"These are not isolated incidents," the minister said, noting that other countries may be involved.

SERIOUS THREAT

We have already seen examples of that - to get into your public's mind, to destabilise your public, to psychologically weaken them and impact your agencies. That is a very serious threat, and it will be naive for us to believe that governments or state agencies do not engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do.

LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM, on fake news.

"The whole idea is to spread sensational news, sensational headlines, influence the population, and arrive at the outcome that is wanted by a certain country outside," he added.

That is why several countries have called for a tough stance against fake news, he said. Germany is considering a draft law requiring social networks like Facebook to remove fake news from their platforms, or risk fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million). United Kingdom MPs have begun a probe into fake news, calling it a threat to democracy.

He also cited local examples of false news from sites The Real Singapore, States Times Review and All Singapore Stuff to illustrate how the trend, if unchecked, can cause harm to innocent Singaporeans, alarm to the public, and damage to reputations.

While fake news has been a problem here, it has not had that much of an impact yet, he noted.

But, he added: "You can predict the same sequence of actors - foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside Singapore - using it to either destabilise our society, or not caring whether it destabilises but doing it to make a lot of money."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'Fake news: Current laws 'offer limited remedies''. Print Edition | Subscribe