Primer

Fighting fake news here with legislation

This is the seventh of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

A proposed law to tackle the scourge of fake news, one of the most closely watched pieces of legislation in recent years, was passed last Wednesday after a marathon debate in Parliament.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill gives Singapore's ministers the power to order removal or corrections of online falsehoods. They can also order the blocking of accounts or sites that are spreading the untruths.

It also provides for criminal sanctions, with fines of up to $1 million for companies that fail to comply with such correction notices, and jail terms of up to 10 years for individuals who spread online falsehoods with malicious intent.

The Bill came after a Select Committee was formed last year to examine the threat of fake news, including how it has affected other societies and Singapore.

The committee's report, after considering views from representors including civil society activists and academics, had cited how Singapore could be a target of a foreign disinformation campaign, and its diversity exploited.

While novel for its tiered approach in providing such a range of powers, the Bill attracted criticism for its potential to stifle freedom of speech and for the power it gives to ministers, even as the Government has stressed that opinions will not be covered, and courts will be the final arbiters of truth.

Singapore now joins countries such as Russia, France and Germany, which in recent years have passed tough laws against fake news or hate speech.

Ordinary citizens who unwittingly share or forward articles which are false are not liable to be punished under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. The law, which was passed last Wednesday with 72 MPs saying "yes", all nine Wo
Ordinary citizens who unwittingly share or forward articles which are false are not liable to be punished under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. The law, which was passed last Wednesday with 72 MPs saying "yes", all nine Workers' Party MPs saying "no" and three Nominated MPs abstaining, will cover statements of facts, and not opinions, criticism, satire and parody. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The Straits Times looks at how Singapore has tackled fake news, and why this legislation is so contentious.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has stressed that there is an objective test for distinguishing between "comment" and "statement of fact", and the courts are equipped to apply the legal test and have regularly done so.

He said what is being targeted are falsehoods, bots, trolls and fake accounts, and people remain free to criticise the Government, adding that it was not a political tool for the ruling People's Action Party to wield power.

GROWTH OF FAKE NEWS

With the growth of online media, the scourge of fake news has become an urgent problem for democracies worldwide.

While misinformation and spin were around before the Internet age, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp have enabled stories with inaccurate information to spread faster than before.

Experts have warned that falsehoods can progressively erode the harmony and cohesion between different communities, and can be used to undermine the credibility and trust in institutions, including the media.

They could also affect free speech and public discourse, drowning out other voices, stirring emotions and causing harm to individuals.

In 2014, two men - a Buddhist and a Muslim - reportedly died in riots in Myanmar following false social media reports that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist employee at their tea shop.

More than 20 others were wounded in the clashes, which lasted for a few days, in a country where relations between the Buddhists and the Muslim minority are often tense. A police investigation later found that the woman was paid to fabricate the accusation against the men.

  • About the quiz

  • Journalists from The Straits Times will address burning questions and offer unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues in a 12-part primer series that began last month in the Opinion section.

    The themes and topics in the primer pieces are part of the outreach by The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, or The Big Quiz, which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.

    The primers broach contemporary issues, such as the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs and the workplace, and how fast fashion is affecting the environment.

    They also include an analysis of the balance between national progress and the preservation of heritage, and an examination of why national borders are still important in today's globalised world.

    For the second year, The Big Quiz will be online, allowing all pre-university students to take part in the current affairs competition over three quiz rounds, the first of which began on April 15. The next round starts today and ends on May 31.

    The primer pieces have been running on Mondays since April 1 and, except for a break during the mid-year school holidays, will continue until Aug 5.

    This nationwide event is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

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Singapore is not spared from fake news, although the consequences have been less serious.

In February 2015, the now-defunct sociopolitical site The Real Singapore put up an article that claimed that complaints by a Filipino family over noise led to a scuffle between the police and participants at a Thaipusam procession. The editor of the site and the co-founder were later sentenced to jail and the site was shut down.

GATHERING VIEWS

To study the issue of fake news, a Select Committee was convened in January last year. It comprised Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong and seven MPs, including Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and opposition MP Pritam Singh.

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods held public hearings over eight days in March last year to listen to oral representations from 65 individuals and organisations. They included Facebook, local and foreign academics, newspaper editors, civil society activists and students.

In September, it submitted a 176-page report to Parliament which emphasised the need for a multi-pronged approach and highlighted legislative and non-legislative measures, saying that there is "no one silver bullet to combat this complex problem".

A total of 22 recommendations were made, including enacting legislation, urging technology companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content on their platforms, and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.

BILL INTRODUCED

Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, introduced in Parliament on April 1, two conditions must be met before its powers can be used: A false statement of a fact has been communicated in Singapore through the Internet, and when it is in the public interest to intervene.

Ministers will be given the power to make the initial decision on a falsehood, but the courts will be the final arbiter of what is true and what is false.

This approach is aimed at tackling online falsehoods in a speedy way, given their tendency to go viral quickly, while allowing that decision to be challenged in court and possibly overturned.

People who spread online falsehoods with a malicious intent to harm public interest could face jail terms of up to 10 years. Internet platforms that fail to comply with correction notices could be fined up to $1 million. Individuals can also be directed to put up similar corrections, and could be fined up to $20,000 and jailed up to 12 months if they refuse to do so.

Ordinary citizens who unwittingly share or forward articles which are false are not liable to be punished under the Bill.

"The criminal sanctions only apply when there was deliberateness in the conduct, if they knew it was a falsehood and they were deliberately putting it out and it impacts on public interest. So, innocent sharing won't attract criminal responsibility," said Mr Shanmugam.

The law will cover statements of facts, and not opinions, criticism, satire and parody. "You can have whatever viewpoints, however reasonable or unreasonable," said Mr Shanmugam.

In fact, the Government has argued that leaving falsehoods to spread can crowd out legitimate debate.

Citing law professor Thio Li-ann's testimony during the Select Committee hearings, Mr Shanmugam noted her point that not all forms of speech are worthy of equal protection, and falsely crying fire in a crowded theatre is not protected as valuable speech.

Several definitions of "public interest" are provided in the Bill. These include Singapore's security, protection of public health or public safety, and Singapore's friendly relations with other countries.

During the second reading of the Bill last Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam outlined the appeals process, where it could take as little as nine days for the High Court to hear a case after an individual challenges a minister's decision.

An individual who does not agree with an order served to him to remove content that is deemed false or to run a correction alongside it will first have to comply. He can then appeal to the minister to cancel the order and, if unsuccessful, file an appeal in court.

A minister must make a decision within two days of receiving an application, after which an individual has up to 14 days to file his appeal in court.

No court fees will be charged for the first three days, although further days will be charged at the usual rate.

Critics have said that going to the courts will be a costly affair and that ministers could delay making a decision after receiving an appeal.

After a 14-hour debate, the Bill was passed at about 10.20pm last Wednesday, with 72 MPs saying "yes", all nine Workers' Party MPs saying "no", and three Nominated MPs abstaining.

CRITICISMS OF THE BILL

The Bill has received much criticism from several quarters, including lawyers, journalists, activists and tech companies.

Among the most common is how the Government can use it to shut down legitimate criticism, or how it might lead to self-censorship for fear of falling foul of the law.

Mr Shanmugam has stressed that there is an objective test for distinguishing between "comment" and "statement of fact", and the courts are equipped to apply the legal test and have regularly done so.

He said what is being targeted are falsehoods, bots, trolls and fake accounts, and people remain free to criticise the Government, adding that it was not a political tool for the ruling People's Action Party to wield power.

The Bill has also attracted opposition from academics. A group of 124 of them sent a letter to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung raising concerns that the Bill will lead to self-censorship.

They said much of academic work involves the disputing of apparently established "facts", which could potentially put scholars and researchers in the cross hairs of the proposed law.

Mr Ong sought to allay such fears with a speech in Parliament last Wednesday. He said the Government will stay true to science and empirical evidence, and engage in vigorous public debate over opinion-based research.

The only way the law would be invoked is if the research is based on false observations or data, preventing public discourse from taking place properly. "In which case, such work cannot pass the professional standards of any decent university or research institute," he said.

Others wondered if too much power would be given to the Government and if the courts should decide what constitutes an online falsehood instead.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said the Government should be able to take down false claims but emphasised that the courts, as a neutral party, ought to be the channel through which this is done.

The Law Ministry has said the model under the Bill - in which the minister makes the decision at first instance, and is then accountable in court, to Parliament and to the electorate - strikes the best balance between the need to act decisively and have accountability.

Mr Shanmugam said it was not possible for the courts to decide whether something is a falsehood in a matter of hours all the time. He cited how it might be difficult to get an audience with a duty judge quickly, and how parties involved might contest the court's decision, which might take a longer time.

THE WAY FORWARD

A day after the law was passed, tech companies, which Mr Shanmugam said orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at, said they will work with the Government on its implementation despite concerns they still have.

Twitter said it hopes concerns raised would be addressed appropriately, while Google expressed concern that the new law will hurt innovation. Facebook said it hopes there will be a "proportionate and measured approach in practice" of the law.

Tech companies in Singapore will be required to abide by codes of practice, which are being developed, said Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran.

These aim to make political advertising transparent, downplay online falsehoods, and counter and prevent the misuse of online accounts by malicious actors.

"The more we can work with technology companies on such upstream systems and processes, the less we will need to issue corrections or take-down directions downstream," said Mr Iswaran.

Subsidiary legislation, which is rules and regulations made by the authorities to put Acts into practice, also remains to be drawn up.

With the scrutiny given to the current debate, it is likely that the first time the powers are used under the law will be similarly closely watched.

The Government has given much assurance that the law will be used in a targeted manner, and it remains for MPs and the public to hold it accountable for not using the law to stifle legitimate criticism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2019, with the headline 'Fighting fake news here with legislation'. Print Edition | Subscribe