No hostile information campaign in S'pore, but TikTok accounts flagged: MHA

TikTok conducted internal investigations which showed that the accounts did not appear to be of foreign origin. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has flagged to TikTok for review multiple accounts that appear to be inauthentic, even as it said it has not detected a coordinated hostile information campaign against Singapore to sway public opinion on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, it said on Friday (March 25) it has noticed accounts that “repeatedly (voice) opinions to convey a misleading impression of widespread local opposition to the Government’s position”, referring to comments that have surfaced on TikTok condemning Singapore’s sanctions against Russia.

It said these accounts usually lack personal information, use a TikTok-assigned username with a string of numbers, and have no followers yet follow a high number of accounts. 

But a spokesman for the social networking platform told ST that it has reviewed all the flagged accounts but will not be acting against them as they do not violate its guidelines.

It had also told MHA that these accounts do not appear to be of foreign origin.

A spokesman for MHA told ST: “We have detected TikTok accounts involved in local online discussions about the Ukraine conflict, with characteristics that suggest that they may be inauthentic.”

The spokesman further warned: “Foreign actors may want to influence local opinion in their favour, to garner general public support, or even to turn the public against positions taken by the Government, for their own vested interests.”

The ministry's comments come after an article in ST last week reporting a surge in the number of such accounts making pro-Russia comments on the video-sharing platform.

"URA", a battle cry of the Russian Armed Forces that has become a rallying cry for Russia supporters globally, is a common refrain.

Others seemingly belittle the Singapore Armed Forces to give the impression that it is hopeless for Singapore to take an opposing position to a big nuclear power.

Many of the accounts also seem to be targeting a regional audience by using Malay.

Asked why the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which seeks to correct false statements of facts made online that could harm national interest, has yet to be used against these actors, MHA said the accounts they have detected are more likely to use a strategy of swarming online space with opinions.

"(They) galvanise others towards their opinion, and not necessarily by spreading false statements of fact per se," MHA said.

The ministry advised Singaporeans to check the authenticity and credibility of information they come across and exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to spread it further.

"We should generally rely on reputable, identifiable and institutional sources for our information, and cross-check information we get from elsewhere against such sources," MHA said.

According to an online poll conducted on March 9 and 10 by The Blackbox Research, the reality of public opinion is very different from the skewed impression of Russian support given by the mass of online commenters.

A vast majority of 95 per cent of the 1,711 Singaporeans interviewed supported or sympathised most closely with Ukraine in the conflict, while six in 10 agreed with the Republic's decision to impose sanctions on Moscow.

The nature of TikTok makes it difficult for casual users to determine whether or not the accounts are manned by real users, since people can begin posting using only an e-mail account. 

But observers have noted that Russia and several other states have a history of using bots or hiring Internet trolls to flood social media accounts to distort public discourse.

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The pattern of online discourse over Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also been concerning enough to draw the attention of observers.

In a strongly worded post on Tuesday, retired Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan referred to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's strong position against Russia's aggression and said those who believe that Singapore should keep its head down are very much mistaken.

"It is very telling that Hun Sen, who is close to both Beijing and Moscow, understands very clearly what is at stake in Ukraine for all small countries everywhere, whereas too many Singaporeans - a minority I think but still useful idiots parroting arguments of foreign powers - still propagate the line that small countries should be quiet and not do what they can to protect and advance their interests just because they are small," he said.

"If our pioneer generation leaders had adopted such an attitude, Singapore as we are today would not exist."

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