SINGAPORE - A high-level parliamentary committee, looking at ways Singapore can thwart deliberate online falsehoods, starts its public hearings on Wednesday (March 14).
Chaired by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, the 10-member Select Committee stands out for three record-breaking reasons:
* The public hearings it holds will last the most number of days: 8
* The number of individuals and organisations giving evidence will be the highest ever: 79
*The number of written representations it received is the most: 164
To understand the issue, the committee will cover several themes.
These include: The phenomenon of deliberate online falsehoods as a serious global problem, the way technology has worsened the problem, and what technology companies are doing to tackle it.
The full-day hearings will also explore how falsehoods affect different parties here, the various ways Singapore can respond, and the merits of different options, including legislation.
What then are falsehoods? They range from fake news for commercial purposes, such as when teenagers in Macedonia spread false stories in 2016 to earn money through online views in the lead-up to the United States' presidential election, to sophisticated state-sponsored disinformation campaigns with apparently political aims.
For instance, in January 2017, it was suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the target of a foreign disinformation campaign, made in an effort to destabilise the European Union.
The Select Committee's public hearings come at a time when falsehoods have been spread online to attack public institutions and individuals.
The invidious nature of these falsehoods and the swiftness with which they spread have led some countries to consider responding with legislation.
France, for example, is expected to introduce draft legislation that will, among other provisions, require websites to disclose the identities of those who sponsor content on their platforms.
Singapore has been studying written representations received from a range of stakeholders. These include media organisations, technology companies, non-governmental organisations, local and foreign experts, telcos and members of the public.
The Office of the Clerk of Parliament said in a statement that the individuals and groups invited to give evidence at the public hearings were selected to represent a cross-section of different stakeholders or because their written representations require further clarification.
Among those who wrote to the Select Committee are Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Mr Howard Lee, a former editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen who is now pursuing a PhD at Murdoch University.
Prof Chong, noting the difficulty of targeting, isolating and containing the spread of online falsehoods, hopes his submission addresses some "grey areas" in fake news.
He told The Straits Times that certain forms of journalism, like those that set out hypothetical scenarios, risk being censured if fake news is targeted indiscriminately.
While Prof Chong has not been asked to appear before the Select Committee, Mr Lee is expected to appear on March 27.
In his submission, Mr Lee said that the open exchange of information remains the best solution against misinformation, arguing that the problem cannot be resolved by legislation.
"It is important for Singaporeans to be engaged on public issues like this, given that it can potentially impact all our civic discourse," he said. " I personally do not approve of a specific fake news law, but given that the Law Minister has already called it a 'no-brainer' (for Singapore to update its legislative toolbox), I decided to give inputs regardless of the eventual outcome."
Speaking on the sidelines of a separate event on Tuesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who is also a member of the Select Committee, said he hopes the committee’s process will allow members of the public to gain a better understanding of the issues that Singapore and the world face when it comes to online falsehoods.
Dates of hearings
Wednesday to Friday, March 22 and 23, and March 27 to 29.
Time of hearings
The Select Committee public hearings will start at 11am on Wednesday. On all other days, the hearing will start at 10am.
Hearings will be held at the Public Hearing Room at Parliament House. The entrance is located in Parliament Place.
Visitors who are inappropriately dressed may be refused entry. This includes people wearing singlets, shorts, slippers or sandals, or wearing clothing with inappropriate words, slogans or symbols, such as those bearing political party affiliations.
Documents to bring
Visitors should bring an identity card or passport to exchange for a pass.
Phones and cameras not allowed
Members of the public must deposit their bags and belongings, including electronic devices such as mobile phones, into lockers available. The lockers cost 40 cents or 60 cents for one-time use, depending on size.