Singapore set to tackle spread of fake news with new laws

The govt is also engaging with major tech companies such as Google and Facebook on how to legislate the recommendations


SIGNAPORE • Singapore will likely adopt strong laws empowering the government to swiftly disrupt the spread of fake news following the release of a parliamentary report yesterday.

Among the 22 recommendations contained in the nearly 300-page report was a call for legislation to halt the viral spread of fake news “in a matter of hours”.

The committee also asked the government to consider legislation to disrupt the flows of digital advertising revenue to publishers of online falsehoods, as well as criminal sanctions for perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods.

Janil Puthucheary, senior minister of state for communications and information and a member of the committee, said malicious actors had been testing the limits using online tools for some years.

“They have essentially been looking for different ways to weaponise falsehoods on the Internet,” he said.

“We have set our clear principles to guide Singapore’s response and we have recommended clear and robust measures to be taken by various stakeholders including government, and these include a recommended legislative response.”

Singapore is the latest Asian country looking more closely at “fake news” and social media. In the run up to a closely-fought election in Malaysia, the government of former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

After Dr Mahathir was elected in May, he attempted to repeal the law, but on Sept 13 the Opposition-led Senate rejected that bill.

The Singapore Parliament established a select committee on “Deliberate Online Falsehoods — Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures” on Jan 10.

“We believe that on the basis of the information provided to us that the nature of falsehoods, and especially deliberate online falsehoods, by their very nature they have the upper hand over the facts,” Puthucheary said.

“They are more easily believed, they travel further, they travel faster and they are much harder to dislodge.”

The committee examined the use of digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online, why people spread falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities who engage in these activities. It also investigated the impact of online falsehoods on Singapore’s institutions and democratic processes.

Online Restrictions
Singapore already has several laws in place to prevent the incitement of racial and religious discord, as well as other laws covering libel and issues considered a threat to national security.

The prospect of even more regulation to limit what can be said or published online has some big technology companies worried.

In a submission to the select committee, the Asia Internet Coalition, an association representing leading technology companies including Apple Inc, Facebook Inc and Google, urged Singapore to consider industry self-regulation and coordination with local authorities, as opposed to a legislative approach.

Responding to the report, Google said it took the issue of false information seriously, and was committed to addressing it in collaboration with governments, media and civil society.

“Globally, we’ve improved our search algorithms and introduced new YouTube features to ensure that credible information and authoritative news sources are weighted more heavily,” Google said in an emailed statement. “We support quality journalism and fact checking networks through our Google News Initiative and Google News Lab, which have worked closely with Singaporean media, academics and students.”

Without specifying a timeline on when the Singapore government would respond to the committee’s recommendations, Minister for Law K Shanmugam, who also sat on the select committee, said the problem of fake news is urgent and serious.

The government is engaging with major tech companies such as Google and Facebook as it considers how to legislate in response to the committee’s recommendations, he said.

“I think there is increasing recognition on all sides that there has to be a responsibility on the part of tech companies, and that governments have to intervene to ensure that responsibility,” Shanmugam said.