A controversial new law will see Singapore’s government become the arbiter of digital truth.
In a bid to tackle the scourge of so-called ‘fake news’, the government of Singapore yesterday (8 May) passed legislation to force media to correct or remove content the government deems to be false. The bill, entitled the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, was first introduced in parliament on 1 April 2019.
In addition to being required to carry corrections or fully remove offending content, perpetrators can face penalties ranging from fines of up to S$1m (€655,000), to prison terms of up to 10 years depending on the conditions of the “communication”.
The law authorises Singapore to issue “corrections” to online content being communicated in the country, regardless of where in the world it is hosted, if it is determined by a minister to be false.
The law also allows for content to be subject to corrections if it is within the public interest to do so, ‘public interest’ here being defined quite broadly. Everything from protecting “public tranquility” to the interest of “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries” could be subject to corrections. Additionally, any content that could cause a “diminution of public confidence” in the government or organs of the state could be tagged for removal.
Even more controversially, Singapore’s government has confirmed that the arm of these new laws will extend to WhatsApp chats and closed Facebook groups.
The law has been censured by tech firms and human rights activists alike, with deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, saying it was a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals”. He has also said it was a “blatant violation of free speech and an affront to freedom of the internet”.
Robertson continued: “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”
Meanwhile, major tech players such as Google and Facebook have disapproved of the move, with the former arguing that it would “hurt innovation” in a country that has been making great strides to establish itself as a regional hub for digital innovation.
Facebook’s Asia Pacific vice-president of public policy, Simon Milner, has said the company is concerned about aspects of the new law “which grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel [it] to remove content they deem to be false”.
The issue of ‘fake news’ has been thrown into sharp relief in the past few years as its role in impacting major elections and referendums has been steadily revealed.
Famously, many claim that its proliferation, particularly via Facebook, played a major role in the election of US president Donald Trump. An analysis by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman conducted shortly after the shock result found that in the lead-up to the vote, false stories got more engagement than the top election stories from 19 major media outlets.
Messaging platform WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has been implicated in the spread of misinformation and propaganda in the lead-up to elections in India, where it is the most popular messaging platform. Worryingly, a BBC analysis found that falsehoods about child predators spread on the social media have led to 31 people being murdered in mob attacks.
The seemingly indomitable rise of this online problem has inspired various anti-misinformation actions around the world, ranging from internet shutdowns to media literacy campaigns.