Shanmugam: Social media firms put profit above principle on fake news

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said a “consensus” is developing around the world that tackling fake news cannot be left to tech firms.

Social media firms are hampered by their commercial interests when tackling fake news, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said, underlining the need for the law against online falsehoods, which critics say stifles free speech.

Mr Shanmugam, speaking last Thursday in an interview for broadcast at the Reuters Next conference yesterday, defended Singapore's law against concerns from the likes of Facebook that it is a censorship tool, and fears from rights groups and others that it is used for political gain.

He said the law was necessary because the platforms that often host fake news have business models that depend on "attracting eyeballs".

He pointed to the United States where lawmakers have also chided social media firms for allowing misinformation about the US election to spread, particularly ahead of the storming of the US Capitol last week.

"The tendency has been on the side of the Internet platforms to say, 'Hey, it's free speech, there shouldn't be any regulation of it'," said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister.

"Let's be frank, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), it's really putting profit above principle."

Mr Shanmugam said there was a "consensus" developing around the world that tackling fake news cannot be left to the technology platforms, although he said it remained unclear how many countries would follow Singapore with regulatory measures.

Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act introduced in 2019 has been called the "most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date" by the Asia Internet Coalition, an association of Internet and technology companies.

It allows government ministers to order news outlets, social media users or platforms to carry warnings that their pages or posts contain false statements, and to include links to a government fact-checking website.

There are more stringent actions, fines and even jail for non-compliance.

When ordered to block access to a page last year, Facebook said it contradicted the Government's claim that the law was not a "censorship tool" and joined rights groups in saying it could harm freedom of expression in Singapore.

The Government says the law tackles only falsehoods and that legitimate criticism and free speech are not affected.

The law ensnared several government critics and opposition parties and politicians in the run-up to Singapore's election in July last year, drawing concern from rights groups like Amnesty International. The law has not been used since.

"The fact that a number of them happen to be opposition politicians, suggests to you as to who then engages in such conduct," Mr Shanmugam said when asked about those who have fallen foul of the law.

He said the reason for the law's inactivity since the vote was "because there haven't been such statements".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2021, with the headline Shanmugam: Social media firms put profit above principle on fake news. Subscribe