A rarely used parliamentary process is being kick-started to garner public feedback over the issue of "fake news" online - and to decide if Singapore should introduce laws to combat it.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam will be moving a motion in Parliament on Wednesday to appoint a Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.
This committee will take submissions from the public and hold public hearings to gather feedback before reporting to Parliament with its recommendations, which will also be published.
If appointed, it will be chaired by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong and comprise seven MPs from the ruling People's Action Party, one member from the opposition and one Nominated MP. The members have to be nominated by a Committee of Selection, which is led by Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin.
This is a change in approach from that articulated by Mr Shanmugam previously. Last June, he said that new legislation to tackle fake news is likely to be introduced this year.
"A Select Committee process provides a platform to study the problem carefully, to talk to experts and other stakeholders, and to involve members of the public," said a government spokesman.
The Law Ministry (MinLaw) did not say why it is not proposing that laws be enacted immediately this year.
It is uncommon for the Government to set up a Select Committee to give policy recommendations.
The last time was 14 years ago, in 2004, when a Select Committee reviewed the Building Maintenance and Management Bill.
How other countries are fighting spread of falsehoods
France is planning to introduce draft legislation that will require websites to identify the people who sponsor content, while the US is studying a law that will require online companies to release information on who exactly their advertisers are targeting.
These are examples of how countries around the world are combating online falsehoods, cited by the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Communications and Information in its Green Paper on the issue. In a statement released yesterday, MinLaw said the Government will be asking Parliament to appoint a Select Committee to study the problem and recommend how Singapore should respond.
Here are some examples of how France, Germany and the US are tackling the problem.
On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he will introduce draft legislation that will require websites to make public the identities of those who sponsor content.
Under the proposed law, there will also be a cap on the amount of sponsored content on websites.
The law also deals specifically with falsehoods spread during election time, and provides for emergency procedures to be introduced during such periods. These allow judges to remove content, close user accounts or block websites that publish false information during elections.
The country enacted a Network Enforcement Act last year, requiring social networks that have more than two million German users to take down illegal content within 24 hours of it being flagged.
Such content includes hate speech and defamation, but where falsehoods are used to further hate speech, they can be removed through this legislation as well.
Failure to do so could result in fines of up to €50 million (S$80 million).
Senators have proposed an Honest Ads Act which deals with political advertisements.
People who take out such ads on television, radio or print have to disclose who funded the advertisements under the law.
It will also require digital companies to release information on who the advertisers and the buyers of the advertisements are targeting.
Yesterday, MinLaw and the Ministry of Communications and Information also issued a Green Paper on the issue. It is a discussion paper containing proposals on an issue for public discussion.
The last time one was issued was three decades ago, in 1988.
The new 21-page document said Singapore should be prepared ahead of time for the "real and serious challenges" posed by online falsehoods.
It said that there is a high risk of foreign interference through such falsehoods, and added that Singapore is an attractive target, being among the most open and globally connected countries in the world. It is also vulnerable, being a multi-racial and religiously diverse society, added the paper.
The paper said that while discourse and debate should remain open, "dissemination of deliberate falsehoods, particularly if this is done covertly, attacks the very heart of democracy" by preventing constructive discourse.
With Singapore's strict rules against foreign interference in its politics, through existing laws such as the Political Donations Act, the same rules should apply to cyberspace, the paper added.
It noted the role of technology as well, such as automated bots that act like and interact with accounts of real people, spreading spam on social media networks.
Calling the formation of a committee a positive step, Mr Benjamin Ang, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the deliberate spreading of destabilising falsehoods online is a problem "that no single ministry or agency can handle alone".
But he cautioned that heavy use of legislation can be counterproductive if it ends up drawing more attention to the fake news.
On the Government's change of tack in having further consultation instead of introducing new laws directly, Professor Lim Sun Sun of the Singapore University of Technology and Design said: "I think that there is interest to make the process more open and consultative because the online space is everyone's."
Political analyst Felix Tan added that this move shows the changing nature of public policymaking in Singapore. He said: "I think it is becoming more open and gives people a voice in policymaking, rather than being done in a top-down manner."