Disinformation threat needs govt intervention, but people are first line of defence: Desmond Tan

Mr Desmond Tan giving a keynote address about disinformation at the second Olive Tree Forum on Nov 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Disinformation is a pernicious threat that is hard to neutralise once falsehoods are propagated.

"Falsehoods can be exaggerated and sensational, baiting persons to pass on the falsehood to their own little social circles," said Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Home Affairs, and Sustainability and the Environment.

He was giving a keynote address about disinformation at the second Olive Tree Forum on Friday (Nov 26).

Organised by interfaith organisation Humanity Matters, the forum focused on local social and security concerns and challenges, with this year's theme being disinformation.

Mr Tan also said that creating fake content is easy and cheap.

"With these low-cost and user-friendly methods, anyone can exploit the digital battlefield, from states to organisation to individuals," said Mr Tan.

For instance, foreign actors spent just over US$100,000 (S$137,000) on Facebook advertisements to reach 126 million users in the United States during the country's 2016 presidential election, he noted.

The threat posed by disinformation requires government intervention, he said, citing the conclusion made by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in its report, which culminated in the introduction of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

Other countries have also introduced laws against online falsehoods, he said.

For instance, Germany's Network Enforcement Act, enacted in 2017, requires large social networks to take down illegal content, which includes hate speech and defamation, within 24 hours of it being reported by users.

Said Mr Tan: "But the very first line of defence against disinformation is always the people.

"This is why we have also ramped up efforts to empower individuals to be more discerning consumers and spreaders of information."

These efforts include public education and strengthening media literacy to foster a more informed public.

A pre-recorded speech by national security and counter-terrorism expert Ali Soufan was also played at the forum, held at the Furama RiverFront hotel.

Mr Soufan said that divisive extremist movements, such as the QAnon conspiracy movement, can be exploited by foreign adversaries and affect other countries around the world.

"Although commonly perceived as a domestic movement within the United States, the data suggests that foreign states are utilising the QAnon conspiracy theory to sow societal discord and even compromise legitimate political process."

Mr Soufan also echoed Mr Tan's point about how cheap and effective disinformation can be.

In a panel discussion moderated by journalist Sujadi Siswo, Dr Shashi Jayakumar, replying to a question from the audience, said Pofma does not definitively settle the harms social media may cause.

"I think it might be much more useful to look at the edifice that the Government is trying to draw up, which has been in my personal view strengthened by Fica," said Dr Shashi, who is from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, referring to the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act.

Nonetheless, he said there may be online harms that may not necessarily be captured by either piece of legislation.

Offering an example, he added: "One of these is... this phenomenon of disinformation as a service or disinformation for hire - where very legitimate or semi-legitimate consultancies... are hiring out their considerable expertise in manipulating social media likes, dislikes, mass persuasion at the behest of other states - and states can conceal themselves as clients."

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