SINGAPORE - Sociopolitical advertising on Facebook and Instagram will undergo more scrutiny ahead of Singapore's upcoming general election.
The social media giant announced measures to bring greater transparency on its Singapore platforms on Thursday (Sept 26).
Advertisers will be required to confirm their identity and location, and disclose who is responsible for the advertisements. The authorisation process will cover advertisers who run advertisements relating to social issues such as civil and social rights, immigration, crime, political values and governance.
Facebook had first put in place the requirements in June, starting with over 50 countries. In its announcement then, it said: "Now we’re expanding proactive enforcement on these ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching, starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina."
Singapore's Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which was passed in May but has not yet come into force, includes a provision touching on political advertising.
Under the law, technology companies will be subject to a code of practice which may require digital advertising intermediaries to disclose the sponsor and other information linked to paid political advertisements communicated in Singapore.
The move comes after the Election Department's announcement on Sept 4 that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee was convened last month, which is seen as the first formal step towards a general election. The next Singapore general election has to be held by April 2021.
On Wednesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said at a conference on foreign interference in domestic politics that Singapore needs laws to counter foreign attempts to influence its domestic politics and public opinion. He cited examples of how foreign interference has taken place at home and globally, including attempts to influence the 2016 United States election. He added that the Government wants to work with technology companies to address the problem.
Facebook's public policy director for global elections, Ms Katie Harbath, announced the initiatives for Singapore on Thursday. The move is part of a global roll-out of its advertisement transparency tools announced in June. The tools will enable advertisers in certain countries to get authorised, place "paid for by" disclaimers on their advertisements and keep their advertisements in a library for seven years.
"Starting today, we are making this a requirement in Singapore and will begin proactively enforcing our policy on ads about social issues, elections and politics," Ms Harbath said.
Facebook said that those who wish to run ads regarding social issues, elections or politics on Facebook's Singapore platforms will need to confirm their identity and location and disclose who is responsible for the advertisement. An advertiser can select itself, a page it runs or its organisation to appear in the "paid for by" disclaimer.
Advertisers will also be required to provide additional information such as a phone number, e-mail address or website if they choose to use their organisation or page name in the disclaimer.
"Authorisations may take a few weeks to complete so advertisers should start this process immediately to help avoid delays in running these types of ads," Ms Harbath said.
Once authorised, advertisers will have their advertisements placed in a library for seven years, including their disclaimer information.
The library will include information about each advertisement, including its range of impressions and the amount spent on the advertisement.
People can also find out the demographic profile of who has seen the advertisement, including the age range, gender and location.
Facebook will also launch an advertisement library report within the next few weeks to provide people who are less tech-savvy with information about advertisements related to social issues, elections or politics.
Ms Harbath said: "We will continue to refine and improve our policies and tools as part of our commitment to help protect the integrity of elections in Singapore and around the world."
Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan, said that Facebook’s initiatives would add a much-needed dose of transparency and accountability to political advertising on the social media platform.
While political advertising is not yet a key feature of sociopolitical discourse in Singapore, its potential to shape public opinion and influence public discourse was real and potentially powerful, the former NMP said.
"As advertisers on Facebook now cannot remain anonymous, advertisers can be held accountable, legally and politically, for the political speech and positions they are taking. In this regard, it can help to reduce blatant falsehoods," Prof Tan said.
On how Facebook’s moves might impact foreign influence on local elections, he said that in a sophisticated operation, a foreign entity can pursue its agenda and place political advertising through proxies and third parties.
"There will be the need for legislation to require political advertisers to be Singaporeans or Singapore-based entities," said Prof Tan.
On Wednesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that it would be necessary to put in place legislative measures in Singapore to counter attempts by foreign forces to influence domestic politics and opinion.
Mr Shanmugam said that tech companies could not be left alone to self-regulate when addressing hostile information campaigns online.
When contacted, a spokesman for the People's Action Party (PAP) said the party will comply with Facebook’s new requirement if the PAP takes out any paid advertisements.
The spokesman added that he does not believe that the new rules will impact the party's use of the social media platform.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said that the new Facebook rules regarding local ownership and payment do not affect the party.
"The SDP posts material written and created by our members. We do not post ads by organisations or individuals who are not from the party," said SDP vice-chairman John Tan.
But he said the 48-hour delay before an advertisement can be approved "will drastically hamper our campaign".
The Progress Singapore Party said of Facebook's initiatives: "This aligns well with the PSP agenda for political institutions and their affiliates to deliver better transparency, accountability and independence. We at the PSP believe Singapore politics is for Singaporeans."
- Additional reporting by Fabian Koh