Select Committee on fake news: Govt should have powers through new laws to fight fake news

File photo showing commuters looking at phones on the MRT. The Select Committee said that any new laws must respect personal and private communications and avoid harming public interest.
File photo showing commuters looking at phones on the MRT. The Select Committee said that any new laws must respect personal and private communications and avoid harming public interest. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - The Government should have the powers to swiftly disrupt the dissemination of online falsehoods and punish those who deliberately start and spread them, through new laws that would, for example, allow it to cut off digital advertising revenue to purveyors of fake news.

This was among the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which put out a report on its findings on Thursday (Sept 20) after submitting it to Parliament on Wednesday.

The committee made clear its position that new laws are needed to fight the scourge of online falsehoods, but added that such laws must be carefully crafted to target only those who are knowingly and intentionally spreading such falsehoods.

Government intervention requires a careful balance, the committee said.

“Falsehoods can appear in a broad spectrum of circumstances – from deliberately fabricated content to satire and parodies. They can also have varying degrees of impact – from causing minor confusion to threatening national security and dividing societies,” it noted.

Therefore, government intervention should take these factors into consideration, the committee said.

Any new laws must also respect personal and private communications and avoid harming public interest, the committee said.

Ultimately, the measures should be able to break the virality of the online falsehood by being effective in a matter of hours, it said.

The decision maker in such cases should be effective and credible, and there should be adequate safeguards in place to ensure due process and the proper exercise of power, and give assurance to the public of the integrity of the decision-making process, it added.

Measures provided in the legislation could include tagging of corrections and notifications, take-down powers and access-blocking and should include judicial oversight where appropriate, the committee said.

 
 
 
 

The Government should also identify additional measures needed to safeguard election integrity, including legislation, it added, noting that purveyors of disinformation based in Russia were found to have meddled in the 2016 United States presidential election to sow discord among American citizens.

Furthermore, the Government should consider implementing monitoring and early warning mechanisms, to facilitate assessments of when and how to intervene to stop the spread of online falsehoods, the committee said.

"Addressing the provenance of the problem is necessary," it said. "This includes ensuring that digital advertising platforms or digital advertisers are not supporting purveyors of online falsehoods; and imposing punitive measures on the perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods."

The Government should also consider powers needed to establish a "de-monetisation regime", including through legislation which will cut off the flows of digital advertising revenue to purveyors of online falsehoods, the committee said.

It should also require purveyors of online falsehoods to repay their ill-gotten gains, it added.

"This should cover the 'hired guns' who are paid by others to create and spread online falsehoods."

And criminal sanctions should be imposed on perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods, the committee said.

However, these deterrent measures should be applied only in circumstances that meet certain criteria, it added.

For example, there should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability - intent or knowledge - in accordance with established criminal justice principles.

It added: "There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder, and the erosion of trust in public institutions."

The Government should ensure these deterrent measures are adequate in scope to cover the range of methods and actors, including the deliberate use of unauthentic accounts or bots, the provision of tools and services to publish falsehoods, and the masterminds behind online falsehoods, who may not always be the ones creating or spreading them, the committee said.