News Analysis

A broader conversation and more time needed on how S'pore should deal with 'fake news'

SINGAPORE - Around 20 journalists packed a conference room at the Home Affairs Ministry on Friday (Jan 5), initially wondering how their industry would be affected by impending regulations on online falsehoods.

After all, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last year that new legislation is likely this year to combat "fake news". The new law would "de-legitimise fake news, help people identify what is and what is not fake news, and deal with the perpetrators of fake news", he said last June.

But there were few clues on Friday on the details of the proposed law. Instead, in a surprise move, the Government said it would ask a Parliament to set up a Select Committee to deliberate the matter. It also put up a Green Paper setting out topics for discussion.

Between June last year and this week, the Government decided to change its approach - from directly legislating on the matter, to subjecting the issue to a longer process of deliberation via a parliamentary select committee.

This acknowledges the need for a wider conversation and more time to build consensus on the issue.

Taking this new route, the committee can organise public hearings and take the time it needs to incorporate views from civil society, experts and companies.

In these public hearings, as was the case for previous Select Committees, it is not enough to simply state an opinion. Anyone making a submission must be able to back it up with evidence and proper justification. This can lead to further reflection and perhaps deeper studies on the issue.

 
 
 

There are no easy answers to questions that are likely to arise: Who decides what is truthful or false? How can the law be tailored to impact only deliberately malicious news sources? And what happens when a politician is behind the misinformation as some politicians abroad have been known to do?

In creating a law to fight a great evil, legislators must also be careful not to enable another.

Legislative overreach is a key concern, said media and technology expert Lim Sun Sun, adding that "the greater the range of views canvassed, the better".

Cybersecurity academic Benjamin Ang said any new law should provide for judicial oversight and an independent party to verify what is fake or real.

Fake news legislation will touch on matters of great importance, ranging from national security to the right to express opinion (even poorly informed ones). It deserves additional time and space for a considered debate.

But the proposed committee should act quickly since there is not a lot of time before the next election, when Singapore is arguably most vulnerable to disinformation campaigns by foreign agents - a key threat identified in the Green Paper.

Researchers found hundreds of fake social media accounts based in Russia trying to divide Britons during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Likewise, the UK has since set up its own select committee to look into falsehoods spread during the referendum.

Singapore's general election is due by April 2021, leaving three years or less for a number of things to happen. The Select Committee must be set up, before the public can make submissions. The committee has to draw up recommendations, and then Parliament must debate and decides which recommendations to accept.

In the interim, Singapore has to rely on existing legal tools to deal with falsehoods which can create unnecessary panic or distrust among Singaporeans. These tools will not work on foreign sources, bots or phantom accounts.

While there is no cause to rush to a solution, time is not exactly on our side.