Singapore can be 'a sandbox for subversion', warns expert at hearing on deliberate online falsehoods

Countries like Singapore would be tempting targets for those looking to undermine societies, Dr Shashi Jayakumar on Thursday (March 15), noted in his written submission at the second hearing on deliberate online falsehoods.

SINGAPORE - Singapore can become "a sandbox for subversion", and misinformation can be used to turn communities against one another, a security expert has warned.

Countries like Singapore - which are polyglot, multiracial, data-rich and aiming to become a Smart Nation - would be tempting targets for those looking to undermine societies, said Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on Thursday (March 15), at the second of eight hearings held by a parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

Dr Shashi, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS, outlined the modus operandi of state and non-state actors around the world that used misinformation and not just military might to attack other countries.

On what this could mean for Singapore, he noted in his written submission: "An aggressor could attempt to 'peel off' one particular ethnic group or religion, using social media and disinformation to appeal... to deeply ingrained historical, cultural issues, setting off one group against others, or even against the Government."

Using a computer term for a testing space, he added: "Singapore can be a sandbox for subversion."

Dr Shashi and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a member of the committee, discussed at length how misinformation can exploit fault lines in a community, fraying trust and weakening a country.

Mr Shanmugam said: "We are a sandbox because we have the in-built potential for being divided along racial lines, along religious lines, along some nationalistic lines. Many countries do, but here's a small place and much easier to exploit."

 
 

Dr Shashi noted that information warfare has evolved to become part of military doctrine. In fact, the best aggressive state actors have a full suite of tools, including "kinetic" warfare, cyber attacks such as malware, and the instrumentalisation of minorities, he said.

Mr Shanmugam said: "You weaken the enemy psychologically, you sow confusion, and you sow discord, and it reduces the will to fight... This is one aspect, covert, using technology to subvert a country by seeding opposition, by seeding doubt, by targeting populations, by encouraging ethnic and racial and other sorts divisions and rivalries."

And these aggressors, he added, have turned to open systems and countries, and used this openness to undermine democracy and free speech.

"One of the key techniques is actually to divide our society. To destroy trust between communities and between communities and the Government, and also institutions... Attackers also want to destroy people's faith in institutions, including religious institutions."

Disinformation can make people cynical, and stick to their filter bubbles and echo chambers, he said.

Dr Shashi and Mr Shanmugam agreed that human intervention should be one of the ways to counter online falsehoods.

Dr Shashi, whose research includes terrorism, said that while many people have been radicalised by extremist ideology online, he has not come across a case of a person who was wholly deradicalised online.

"There must be some active human agency involved together with any online counter-measures," he said. "I believe that to be the case for disinformation as well," he said, adding that perhaps something could be done along the lines of the Our Singapore Conversation series.


Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, co-founder of Ukrainian fact-checking site StopFake.org. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, co-founder of Ukrainian fact-checking site StopFake.org, spoke after Dr Shashi and gave details of the group's efforts against Russian disinformation tactics.

Other speakers from overseas institutions are also scheduled to share on Thursday how online falsehoods have wreaked havoc in their countries, and how they have fought back.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here.