Select Committee on fake news: Singapore a target of hostile info campaigns

Fake news can jeopardise security, social cohesion, and can inflict long-term damage


Singapore needs a national strategy to combat fake news campaigns run by foreign operators to safeguard its sovereignty and security, a parliamentary Select Committee has said.

The committee, which released a report on its findings and recommendations on Thursday (Sept 20), noted that Singapore has been and will continue to be a target of hostile information campaigns.

Speaking at a media briefing on the report, committee chairman Charles Chong said online falsehoods are "pervasive and can affect different aspects of our country: national security, racial harmony, democratic processes, social cohesion and trust in public institutions".

It is easy to underestimate the problem of fake news, added committee member Janil Puthucheary.

Recent events around the world, however, have shown that operators behind disinformation campaigns can translate online falsehoods into real-world consequences, he said.

"The initial falsehoods may seem ridiculous, trivial, small in the larger scheme of things, but they have been cleverly played on, used to exaggerate and exacerbate local grievances and to manipulate the sentiment of people," he added.

In its report, the committee provided three key observations on deliberate online falsehoods in relation to Singapore.

One is that foreign disinformation has likely occurred and can be expected to continue to take place here.

Two, Singapore's societal conditions are fertile ground for "slow-drip" falsehoods that can cause long-term damage.

Three, regional conflicts can contribute to Singapore's vulnerability to falsehoods.

The committee said it received evidence suggesting that "a range of state and non-state actors" are engaging in disinformation operations here, and that these operators have used online news articles and social media to influence Singaporeans and legitimise another state's international actions.

The committee learnt that Singapore was the top cyber-attack target in the world when it hosted the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.

Singapore experienced close to 40,000 attacks, 88 per cent of them launched from "a particular foreign state", the committee said, without identifying the state in question.

The recent hacking of SingHealth's databases, which led to the theft of the private data of 1.5 million patients, was also an indicator of the threat Singapore faces, the committee said.

"Both disinformation and cyber attacks are part of a spectrum of non-military tools commonly used in information warfare."

In fact, the committee said, information warfare against Singapore is a more attractive strategy than conventional warfare, as the country's digital connectedness allows foreign actors easy reach to wide segments of the population.

There are also "cyber armies" that have been deployed to aid sectarian or political agendas in several neighbouring countries, and these can easily be repurposed and deployed against Singapore, it added.

Furthermore, Singapore's diverse society provides fertile ground for insidious "slow drip" falsehoods to cause longer-term damage to society, the committee said.

These "low-level" falsehoods, which could be about a particular ethnic, religious or immigrant group, could raise tensions little by little. Emotions may not be high initially, but falsehoods could make them stronger, the committee said.

Singapore is also vulnerable because regional conflicts could lead to tensions spilling over into the country, the committee said.

For example, it noted that when local media outlets reported on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, their social media pages attracted Islamophobic comments from Myanmar-based accounts, triggering backlash from accounts that appeared to belong to Singaporean Muslim users, the committee said.

One clear theme that emerged from the expert evidence the committee received is that the "visible hand" of the state is needed to fight fake news, it added.

For example, in the lead-up to France's 2017 presidential election, key French government agencies took pre-emptive steps to counter fake news operations and cyber attacks.

Examples included offering practical advice to presidential candidates and reducing the use of vulnerable technological products during the election.

"This reportedly ensured that certain presidential candidates and also the general public were well prepared for such attacks, minimising the impact these attacks eventually had on French voters," the committee said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2018, with the headline Select Committee on fake news: Singapore a target of hostile info campaigns. Subscribe