Keeping fake news at bay

The scourge of fake news has afflicted many, sometimes even sending members of the public into a panic.

Singapore has seen its share of fake news that went viral, from false allegations that a childcare centre in River Valley Road made its enrolled children eat rotten fruits to a hoax report that the roof of a flat at Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed.

On Monday, the Government said it is seriously looking at how to deal with fake news and will announce its position once a review is completed.

Current laws have limited remedies to deal with falsehoods, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing that it is false. But such messages go viral more quickly today, and it is harder to undo the wrong impressions caused by misinformation.

As Mr Shanmugam said: "We need to do more."

The Government can look to other countries considering tougher laws. Germany is looking into a draft law requiring social networks like Facebook to remove fake news from their platforms or risk fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million).

In his reply to MPs, Mr Shanmugam noted that fake news has the potential to destabilise the public, interfere with domestic politics and cause real harm.

But even as citizens understand the need to combat fake news, there are some who fear the review would lead to censorship.

One Straits Times Forum writer was concerned an interventionist approach would end up suppressing views that are different - not necessarily false.

In his reply, Mr Shanmugam had assured the House the review is not aimed at "trivial, factual inaccuracies" but malicious misinformation that causes real harm. During the review, the Government should strike a balance between national security and preserving freedom of speech.

In the meantime, it will be useful for Singaporeans to take alarming news with a pinch of salt. Care should always be taken to check that news comes from credible sources.

Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping fake news at bay'. Print Edition | Subscribe