Treat 'deliberate online falsehoods' with care

PHOTO: ST FILE
PHOTO: ST FILE

I have watched with great interest the public hearing sessions by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, and have mixed feelings about legislating on this thorny issue.

On the one hand, deliberate online falsehoodsdistort democratic processes.

For instance, unfounded rumours of Mrs Hillary Clinton's connection to a child sex ring clearly have no place in a democracy, and add no value at all to political discourse.

In this regard, one might be tempted to surmise that it is timely to enact legislation on deliberate online falsehoods to safeguard against such incidents in Singapore.

However, athere is also a need to define what constitutes a deliberate online falsehood, and this deeply concerns me.

An over-expansive piece of legislation risks chilling the constitutional right to freedom of expression - both in receiving as well as in conveying ideas and information. Freedom of expression is widely accepted to be fundamental in a democracy, and over-expansive legislation on deliberate online falsehoods would ironically have the same effect it is trying to prevent.

First, it is an immense challenge to ascertain the intention of the content creator. As the name suggests, legislation on deliberate online falsehoods targets deliberate, or intentional, falsehoods.

Yet, in today's digital era when content is created anonymously on the Internet, it is near impossible to ascertain with confidence the mental state of the creator. In most cases, falsehoods would almost certainly lie in the grey area between the intentional and the negligent.

Second, enforcement of the legislation poses a set of challenges. Considering the political context in which falsehoods are usually consumed and transmitted, the issue of who should enforce such legislation is crucial. Will there be safeguards to ensure that the enforcer acts in a neutral and non-partisan manner?

In the wrong hands, legislation on deliberate online falsehoods runs the risk of being utilised as a political tool to censor information and ideas that, although not falsehoods, are politically inexpedient to a party. At its worst, such legislation could have the effect of massive censorship that allows only the consumption of "approved" content. This hurts bloggers, journalists, media companies and citizens alike.

Clearly, this is a balancing exercise of the perils of deliberate online falsehoods and the danger of over-expansive laws. I urge everyone to engage in thoughtful discussion of the issue as this is something that affects all of us.

Francis Tay

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2018, with the headline 'Treat 'deliberate online falsehoods' with care'. Print Edition | Subscribe