Parliament: MPs discuss balance between malicious falsehoods and opinions in fake news debate

Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked in Parliament how people could distinguish between those who knowingly create or spread online falsehoods from those who are just expressing their opinions.
Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked in Parliament how people could distinguish between those who knowingly create or spread online falsehoods from those who are just expressing their opinions.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - The topic of where to draw the line in fighting fake news online is being debated in Parliament.

One of the questions posed was: How does Singapore ensure that new laws to tackle online falsehoods will not end up impeding citizens' rights to free speech?

This was raised by Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) on Wednesday (Jan 10). "How do we distinguish those who knowingly create or spread online falsehoods from those who are just expressing their opinions?"

She was responding to a motion proposed by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam to form a committee to examine the problem of online falsehoods. This 10-MP select committee, if appointed, will come up with countermeasures, which could include legislation, against the threat of such fake news.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun highlighted the need to define what a deliberate falsehood is, and where to draw the line with biased but legitimate commentaries.

He also called for a deeper look at existing laws.

These include the Telecommunications Act - where knowingly transmitting a false message could lead to a fine and jail term - and the Protection from Harassment Act and Sedition Act, which already go some way in curbing online falsehoods. This was seen in a previous case where founders of The Real Singapore were jailed for a series of seditious articles.

"This demonstrates that our current existing laws and provisions have been effective," he argued.

"We do not want a heavy-handed approach that will root out constructive, though at times disagreeing voices ," said Mr Kok.

He called for the select committee to balance the interests of protecting national security and public order, with the interests of individuals who want to have "meaningful discussions on issues of concern including government policies" and also that of the media to report on such matters.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) also noted that the extent of government involvement "requires deep discussion".

"We may end up freezing free speech online," he said. "Legislation, if overly relied on, may also weaken the ability of society to educate themselves, and discern what is real or not for themselves."

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said she hopes the Select Committee can pay attention to whether any measures introduced could be used to silence government critics or members of the opposition.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said that combating falsehoods is not contrary to the exercise of freedom of speech.

He said: “In fact, keeping falsehoods out of our discourse enables freedom of speech to be meaningfully exercised.”

He added that in considering responses to deal with falsehoods, there will be a need to take into account the nature and intention behind them.

Mr Shanmugam noted Mr Kok’s point that fake news is used to divide and mislead society, and his question on how this segues into biased commentary. In response, he said strongly-held viewpoints based on inaccuracies is one kind of falsehood.

However, its impact would be different from deliberate, targeted fake news, and these are matters that should be considered.

During Wednesday’s debate, NMP Mahdev Mohan said that it is important to clarify the term "fake news", to frame the problem that Singapore means to tackle. He also said users should be equipped to be the first line of defence against fake news.

In dealing with the scourge of fake news, there should be more education, said the MPs.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) said that legislation should be a part of a "wider, more multi-pronged approach" where media literacy is key.

NMP Ganesh Rajaram added that "education has to start at a much earlier stage", perhaps as early as pre-school.

"This needs a 'whole of Singapore' approach; everyone from parents to grandparents to teachers need to get involved," he added.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said: "What is important is discernment, and not just disbelief."

"Empowering people to discern between truth and lies is of paramount importance," he added. "Only then, can we increase our resistance to the insidiousness of falsehood."