Parliament: Government to review laws to tackle fake news

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said a review is needed as fake news can have real consequences.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said a review is needed as fake news can have real consequences.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Government is "seriously considering" how to combat fake news as current laws are limited in tackling the issue, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament on Monday (April 3).

It will announce its position when the review is completed, he told MPs Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who asked if existing laws on dealing with false news would be strengthened.

Mr Shanmugam said a review is needed as fake news can have real consequences: "They can cause harm to innocent Singaporeans; they can cause unnecessary alarm to the public; emergency resources may be diverted from legitimate emergencies and the reputation of honest Singapore businesses may be unfairly damaged."

At the same time, current laws are limited in dealing with falsehoods. For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing its false.

"But these remedies are ineffective to stem the circulation of falsehoods, given how quickly they go viral today. More needs to be done," he said.

The Government is not concerned with "trivial, factual inaccuracies, but with falsehoods that can cause real harm", he added.

He cited several examples, including how a man opened fire on a pizza restaurant, after a fake news story claimed that United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a paedophilia ring there.

Commentators have suggested that fake news can also be used as a powerful tool to interfere with domestic affairs and politics, such as how misleading stories were published to fuel xenophobia and anti-immigrants sentiments before the Brexit referendum, he said.

There is also a risk that parties may use fake news to destabilise society, or not caring if it destabilises society so long as they make money.

That is why several countries have called for a tough stance against fake news, he said.

Germany, for example, is considering a draft law which will require social networks like Facebook to remove fake news amounting to illegal content from their platforms, or risk fines of up to 50 million euros.

The United Kingdom is launching a parliamentary probe into fake news, calling it a "threat to democracy", he noted.

While fake news has not had a grave impact on Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said there is a risk for it to go the way of other countries.

He gave the example of now-defunct sociopolitical site The Real Singapore, which ran false articles including one that claimed that a commotion between the police and participants of Thaipusam 2015 was sparked by a noise complaint from a Filipino family. This never happened.

While the site has been shut down, he said other sites still peddle fake news and hoaxes, such as the States Times Review, whose founder Alex Tan Zhixiang operates the site from outside Singapore, and All Singapore Stuff.

He cited how one article on All Singapore Stuff in November 2016 falsely claimed that the rooftop of Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed, which the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force had to investigate: "Taxpayers pay the cost for all this."

He said: "Hoaxes like these can have serious real world consequences, if not quickly corrected."