Singapore's fake news law used 33 times to date, including 19 against Covid-19 misinformation

Minister for Communication and Information Josephine Teo (centre) at the Future Tech Forum in London, on Nov 29, 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS & INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - The Republic's fake news law has been used 33 times since it came into force in 2019, with more than half of these instances, 19, for correcting Covid-19 misinformation.

Being able to take swift action against pandemic falsehoods "has helped to build trust about vaccines, and allowed us to achieve high vaccination coverage, with 94 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated", said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo.

Each case of fake news that the law deals with can result in more than one direction issued by the Government to address the falsehoods, such as those posted on multiple platforms.

Mrs Teo was speaking at a panel discussion on how governance frameworks can keep pace with technology at the Future Tech Forum in London on Monday (Nov 29).

She said the Singapore Government was worried about the risks of misinformation, and cited a study last year showing that six in 10 people here received false information about Covid-19 on social media.

On Monday, two men were issued correction directions under Singapore's fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

The Ministry of Health said this was done because local author Cheah Kit Sun and opposition party chief Goh Meng Seng shared misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

They will each have to publish correction notices at the top of each webpage or social media post containing the false statements.

Mr Cheah has complied, while Mr Goh made a separate post with a link to the correction notice on Facebook.

Other Covid-19 falsehoods dealt with by the law in the past include claims of mask supplies here running out.

Mrs Teo later told reporters over videoconference on Wednesday that some participants at the London forum expressed "serious interest" in Singapore's Pofma and wanted to find out more about what the law involved.

"The interest was a positive one. People wanted to know how their own countries should consider similar legislation," said Mrs Teo, without elaborating on who had expressed interest.

The forum's attendees included government representatives, policymakers and technology leaders from the Group of Seven countries, including Britain, Germany, Japan and the United States, as well as invited participants from countries such as Australia, Singapore and South Korea.

Mrs Teo (left) delivering her comments at the roundtable on Nov 30 at the Future Tech Forum in London. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS & INFORMATION

Mrs Teo said that forum participants discussed how their countries grappled with challenges against the fight against Covid-19.

She added that there was growing international consensus that digital regulations are needed to build trust among people and businesses in the digital domain.

But beyond regulations, she said, Singapore is also tackling fake news through public education, citing efforts such as those by the National Library Board to help the public discern fact from fiction.

Still, Professor Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information believes that Pofma is not strong enough to deal with Covid-19 fake news - it requires a correction notice to be displayed with the falsehood but does not take it down.

"Misinformation in this case is potentially lethal," said Prof Ang, adding that Covid-19 fake news should be removed and there is legislation here that allows this to be done.

The need for laws to curb online harm and threats to individuals and society - even if they are not illegal but are detrimental to people's well-being - garnered strong support from the forum attendees, Mrs Teo said.

For instance, the European Union is working on the Digital Services Act that gets Big Tech companies such as Apple, Google, Meta and Twitter to do more to tackle illegal content on their platforms.

In the US, lawmakers want more regulation of companies such as Meta, the company that owns Facebook, after allegations in September that the social media giant knew its products fuelled hate and harmed young people's mental health.

Asked if Singapore would also use regulations to clamp down on Big Tech like other countries, Mrs Teo said that the Republic's approach is not the same.

"Some of the companies are very large and their platforms are very powerful and influential. That means we have to engage them and understand what the issues are," she said.

"But the approach we prefer to take in Singapore is a more collaborative one. We'd like to bring them into the conversation and involve them in designing solutions for them."

Still, it does not mean that when regulations are needed, Singapore will not go ahead with them, said the minister.

"Even in designing laws or updating our codes of practice, we would want to engage with all the companies, including tech giants, to understand if they will be impacted or not. That is the approach we take in Singapore," she said.

She added that the Government is studying whether Singapore needs regulations to counter the ill effects of online harm, and will seek feedback and proposals from an Alliance for Action workgroup formed to tackle this matter.

The industry-led alliance, launched in July, comprises representatives from the public and private sectors, as well as members of community organisations.

Recent instances of disinformation about Covid-19 dealt with under Pofma

The Republic's fake news law has been used 19 times to correct misinformation on Covid-19. This is more than half of the 33 times the legislation has been used since it came into effect in 2019.

Here are some recent examples in which the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) was used against Covid-19 fake news.

Nov 29: Local author Cheah Kit Sun and opposition party chief Goh Meng Seng were required to publish correction notices on posts with misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

Mr Cheah stated in a blog post that Covid-19 vaccines are "the most dangerous ever developed in recent memory". Mr Goh, the founder of the People's Power Party, had shared the post.

The Minister for Health instructed the Pofma Office to issue correction directions against both men over the false claims.

Oct 24: A correction direction was issued to local website Truth Warriors for false claims about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines, and the safety and efficacy of ivermectin in preventing and treating Covid-19.

The site claimed, among other things, that vaccinated countries have the most cases and deaths per million population, and the least vaccinated countries have the fewest cases and deaths per million population.

Aug 15: The fake news law was invoked over a Facebook post circulating online which suggested that a three-year-old pre-schooler had died of Covid-19 at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Facebook had to carry a correction notice with a link to the facts to all users here of the social media platform. The Ministry of Health (MOH) said that as at Aug 14, no child has died of Covid-19 at any hospital in Singapore.

May 20: Facebook, Twitter and the HardwareZone forum owned by SPH Magazines complied with a correction direction and put up notices on posts claiming that there is a new Covid-19 variant that originated in Singapore.

MOH said that there is no such variant and that there is no evidence of any Covid-19 variant that is "extremely dangerous for kids".

April 15: Correction directions were issued to the Facebook pages of Goh Meng Seng People's Power Party and Goh Meng Seng (Satu Singapura), as well as at the Singapore Uncensored website, after unsubstantiated claims about adverse reactions to Covid-19 vaccines were posted.

These included a suggestion that the Covid-19 vaccination caused or substantially contributed to a doctor here suffering a stroke.

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