Parliament: Coronavirus falsehoods underscore need for swift action under fake news law, says Iswaran

Correction orders were issued on Jan 31, 2020 in two separate cases related to the coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - The spread of fake news during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak has underscored the need for swift action so that such falsehoods do not gain traction and mislead Singaporeans, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

And the use of the fake news law during this period has reinforced the Government's convictions to vest the powers to act in the executive, he added on Tuesday (March 3).

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) gives government ministers the authority to decide on falsehoods and order corrections or take downs, among other things.

This was a point of contention for the law's detractors when it was debated last year. At that time, the Government said it was necessary for ministers to have the power to quell falsehoods before they go viral.

On Tuesday, Mr Iswaran said: "Our Covid-19 experience has reinforced, if anything, that conviction, and certainly we have no reason to question the reason for doing so."

The issue came up during the debate on his ministry's budget, when Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) asked if the Government felt even more strongly now that acting against falsehoods under Pofma "is a job best left for the executive branch".

Mr Iswaran said the various ministers who invoked the law have found it very effective in fighting fabrications about the coronavirus outbreak.

"In a situation like an epidemic, it's essential that our population stays calm, gets advice and information from reliable sources and is able to then take appropriate measures," he added.

"In that context, we have found Pofma, the tools and also the...authority that's vested in the Executive to exercise those tools to have been very effective."

The minister's statement prompted Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) to reiterate his party's opposition to Pofma.

"Indeed, you have instances of fake news in the case of epidemics... certainly they have to be taken down swiftly. But I suppose there are different modalities that swift action can manifest itself in," Mr Singh said.

"And the WP's position is there are still other options, apart from executive orders that can eventuate in that outcome."

Since the law came into effect last October, it has been used against various distortions or fabrications, such as claims that Singapore had run out of masks and that the police had abused its power.

Mr Iswaran said such falsehoods can sow fear, cause panic and erode trust in institutions if Singaporeans are duped into believing them.

He added that in all the cases, the Government had sought to place factual corrections next to the offending posts, so that they are corrected at their source and do not get entrenched.

This allowed Singaporeans to see both versions and draw their own conclusions, he said.

More serious measures were only taken to block the recalcitrant States Times Review Facebook page after it repeatedly posted falsehoods and then refused to carry any corrections.

While acknowledging that these moves may invite some criticism, Mr Iswaran said the Government is resolute in its efforts to uphold the standards of discourse online and resist any attempts to polarise society.

"Today, the online space is where our hard-won cohesion could fray, that is where our laws against online falsehoods become very important," he added.

"It is abundantly clear that it would have been much harder to quell the spread of false information and keep society calm without the Pofma measures, which are designed specifically to address falsehoods in the online space."

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