Parliament: Facebook allows itself to spread lies by not removing States Times Review post, says Edwin Tong

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said Facebook's refusal to remove the post is "surprising" as it has given assurances previously that it will work with the Singapore authorities to address online falsehoods.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said Facebook's refusal to remove the post is "surprising" as it has given assurances previously that it will work with the Singapore authorities to address online falsehoods.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - 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 that Singapore is involved in corrupt dealings in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

The move, he said, shows it allows itself to be the platform for spreading lies and falsities that "poison and divide societies" as well as encouraging xenophobia and to profit from that, he said on Tuesday (Nov 20).

In a tersely worded statement in Parliament, Mr Tong also said Facebook's refusal is "surprising" as it has 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 Development Media Authority (IMDA) requested Facebook to remove the post by States Times Review on its website but it declined to do so. The post was linked to a Nov 5 2018 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".

Mr Tong told the House 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 demonstrate how rapidly the recent online falsehoods had spread.

As at 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 from 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, which was picked up by Malaysian Chinese newspaper China Press. By Nov 8, the China Press report was 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 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 stating the article was "clearly libellous", which was carried in several mainstream media outlets in Malaysia.

IMDA also issued a request to the States Times Review on Nov 9 to take down the article. It refused, and IMDA proceeded to direct the Internet service providers to block its website.