Falsehoods on coronavirus show why Pofma is necessary

Law helps correct fake news quickly but query raised on whether its use is always justified

Falsehoods circulating about the coronavirus that originated from Wuhan can cause panic, and they underscore why it is so important for ministers to have tools like the laws against fake news to correct misinformation quickly, said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong at a forum on fake news.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, speaking at the same event, said that in fact, tackling clearly false information such as the rumours about the virus should be the principal focus of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

Both men were speaking at the closed-door forum organised by the Public Policy and Global Affairs Club of Nanyang Technological University, held last Tuesday. They went on to release their remarks after the event.

Citing an example of a recent instance in which Pofma was used - to correct a post on Hardwarezone.com forum that erroneously claimed someone had died from the coronavirus here - Mr Tong said it was by design that the law gave ministers the power to act on falsehoods and to do so quickly.

First, he said ministers would be intimately familiar with the issues pertaining to their domains.

Second, he added, they are in a position to respond quickly, versus, say, the court, which would have to hold a hearing before deciding.

Rumours and lies about the coronavirus have been swirling online ever since cases of infection were confirmed in Singapore, drawing seven correction orders from the Pofma office.

Mr Singh said he believed Pofma should focus on such clear instances of falsified information, adding that the use of Pofma in some other instances has been partisan.

After Pofma came into force in October last year, it was invoked five times to correct posts by opposition politicians and government critics, triggering questions about political bias.

Mr Singh, referring to these instances, said he did not believe the use of the law was always justified.

For instance, he said, Pofma had been used on falsehoods that had already been online for a "comparatively significant duration of time", even though the Government had said that Pofma would be an important tool to tackle falsehoods that could spark violence and harm.

Mr Singh also took issue with the fact that a Pofma order can be issued based on the minister's interpretation of the content in question.

"It is my view that the danger of moving too deep into the domain of interpretation is that Pofma risks stifling a frank and healthy exchange of opinion required for a functioning democracy. It also threatens engendering a cynical perspective about how the Government employs Pofma, something I opine has started to take root already," he said.

The opposition leader cited the case in which People's Voice leader Lim Tean was taken to task for comparing the Government's spending on "$167 million on grants and bursaries on Singaporeans, but $238 million on foreign students".

The Government had said that $167 million included only bursaries for Singaporean tertiary students and a more appropriate comparison would be with the nearly $13 billion spent to provide subsidised education for all Singaporean students.

Mr Singh said a like-for-like comparison would have been between bursaries and aid awarded to Singaporeans versus foreign students.

He added: "Why do we have to accept the subjective opinion of the minister as to which is the appropriate comparison?"

"I am concerned that if this is how Pofma is going to be employed moving forward, particularly against political opponents, Singapore's battle against fake news while effective in some cases, would be seen as a Trojan Horse for partisan politics in other cases."

But Mr Tong said Pofma as used by the Government thus far has added to public discourse and not taken away from it as critics have charged.

Highlighting what he described as a fundamental feature of Pofma, he said it is perhaps the only such law in the world that allows for the offending post or article to remain available and accessible online alongside the correction.

He added that the Government had initiated only such corrections from the get-go and none of the original posts or articles were deleted, censored, amended or blocked when people complied with the correction orders.

Mr Tong said this allows people to read the original article or post and compare it with what the Government said about it, then decide for themselves.

He also sought to correct the perception that ministers had the last word under the law.

He said ministers are required to substantiate their decisions publicly from the start and explain why the content is false, and can also be challenged.

Once the court rules on the case, the decision is final and a minister is bound by it, he added.

He acknowledged that some of the falsehoods corrected so far - like a claim that prisoners here were executed brutally and another that suggested the police arrest people arbitrarily - did not spark immediate danger.

But he warned that such long-term, pernicious misinformation was no less damaging than the kind with dramatic impact, and was designed to undermine trust in the Government and institutions, ultimately eroding the practice of democracy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2020, with the headline Falsehoods on coronavirus show why Pofma is necessary. Subscribe