Facebook allows itself to be used to spread lies: SMS Edwin Tong

SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR LAW EDWIN TONG
SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR LAW EDWIN TONG
MR MURALI PILLAI
MR MURALI PILLAI

Senior Minister of State blasts social media giant's refusal to remove post accusing Singapore of corrupt dealings

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong has denounced Facebook's refusal to remove a post by sociopolitical site States Times Review, which alleges Singapore is involved in corrupt dealings in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

The decision, he said, shows it allows itself to be the platform for spreading lies and falsity that "poison and divide societies" as well as encouraging xenophobia and to profit from that, he said yesterday.

In a tersely worded statement in Parliament, Mr Tong also said that Facebook's refusal is "surprising" as it had given assurances previously that it will work with the Singapore authorities to address online falsehoods.

The incident shows why the goodwill of service provider platforms cannot be relied on to protect Singapore from disinformation campaigns, he said.

It also reinforces a recommendation by a parliamentary Select Committee - which published a report in September on ways to fight fake news - that legislative powers are needed to protect Singapore from deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Tong was replying to Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), who asked about the Law Ministry's views on the recent online falsehoods that said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Government allowed money laundering of 1MDB funds in exchange for terms favouring Singapore in bilateral agreements.

Regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had on Nov 9 requested that Facebook remove the post by States Times Review on its website, but it declined to do so. The post was linked to a Nov 5 article "Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB's key investigation target".

Facebook said last week, following media queries, that it does not have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, "apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm".

POTENTIAL FOR SERIOUS HARM

As Members will appreciate, the slow drip of poison, over a period of time, can one day burst into violence.

SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR LAW EDWIN TONG, on Facebook saying that it does not have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, "apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm".

UNTRUTHS SPREAD FAST

There is the old saying: Untruths travel halfway around the world when the truth is just putting on its boots... It seems that untruth has picked up pace since.

MR MURALI PILLAI (Bukit Batok), on the rate at which falsehoods spread online.

Mr Tong told the House that there are many situations where serious harm is caused, even though there is no potential for imminent violence or physical harm.

"As Members will appreciate, the slow drip of poison, over a period of time, can one day burst into violence," he added.

Mr Tong also sought to show how rapidly the recent online falsehoods had spread.

As of Nov 8, three days after the States Times Review article was put up, it had been shared around 1,600 times on Facebook.

Some of the shares were a "concerted effort" by a small group of seven users, who spread it across multiple Facebook groups, and accounted for the fake news being potentially seen by more than 800,000 users who were members of these groups.

On Nov 7, the States Times Review article was reproduced on Malaysian website The Coverage, and it was picked up by Malaysian Chinese newspaper China Press. By Nov 8, the China Press report had been viewed 45,000 times.

Mr Tong said the spread of disinformation follows a pattern witnessed in other countries: "A falsehood first appears in an obscure site and then gets picked up by mainstream media, which lends credence to the claims."

He cited two examples: A false claim about the vulnerability of the United States Navy, and a disinformation campaign against actor Morgan Freeman.

In recapping the Singapore Government's response to the fake news, he said the Monetary Authority of Singapore made a police report on the evening of Nov 8.

The Singapore High Commission in Malaysia also issued a statement saying the article was "clearly libellous", and this was reported in several mainstream media outlets in Malaysia.

Subsequently, many Malaysian publications, including China Press, removed the articles from their websites.

After States Times Review declined to remove the article, IMDA directed the Internet service providers to block its website.

Mr Murali asked if social media giants like Facebook would have a different attitude if it were being directed by an independent body, like the judiciary, instead of a government agency.

Mr Tong reiterated that the Government was "disappointed" with Facebook's failure to remove the post, and noted that the States Times Review article quoted an interview given by the editor of The Sarawak Report website.

 
 

But The Sarawak Report itself has said the article is misleading and erroneous.

"Despite that, Facebook has not seen fit to remove its content or block the States Times Review Facebook page," he added.

Mr Tong said that at this point, there are limited options to stem the spread and influence of such online falsehoods.

He added that there is probably a need for levers to arrest the spread of such fake news, a recommendation that was made by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

Asked by Mr Murali if Facebook had demoted or de-ranked States Times Review's post, Mr Tong said it does not appear so.

He added: "Our primary assessment is that rather than being demoted or de-ranked, it ought not even to have been put up in the first place."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2018, with the headline 'Facebook allows itself to be used to spread lies: Edwin Tong'. Print Edition | Subscribe