The Expert's View with Suparna Goswami

Singapore's 'Fake News' Law Enforcement Draws Criticism

Facebook Forced to Label Government Criticism as 'False'
Singapore's 'Fake News' Law Enforcement Draws Criticism

Singapore's recent order requiring Facebook to label a blog critical of the ruling government as "false" has drawn harsh criticism. And the action calls into question how the country's new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act might be used to suppress free speech (see: Why Singapore's 'Fake News' Bill Should Be Enacted).

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The Singapore government ordered Facebook to attach a label to a Nov. 23 post by the States Times Review that criticized the government for many of its actions. Citing the new law, the government asked Facebook to apply a label to a blog that tells users that "the Singapore government says this post has false information."

The notice, which Facebook posted, was linked to a website outlining the government's detailed assertions on why the post, written by Australia-based blogger Alex Tan Zhi Xiang, contained false statements of fact.

The government took its action after the blogger previously defied an order asking him to make changes to his post.

Under the law, the government can decide whether to order something deemed fake news should be taken down or whether a correction should be put up alongside it. The law also gives the government the power to order technology companies, such as Facebook and Google - both of which opposed the bill during its fast-tracked process through parliament - to block accounts or sites spreading false information.

Although Facebook complied with government's request, it asked the government to be more open to "free expression."

Several security experts and policymakers tell me that it's vital that the government use the new law judiciously.

"The Fake News Act is definitely required to balance the negativity of the 'dark side' brought about by the cyberspace," Aloysius Cheang, executive vice president at The Center for Strategic Cyberspace + International Studies in London, tells me. "Having said that, we need to ensure that a committee is formed which monitors every time the act is put into effect."

To ensure effective and proper implementation of the law, Singapore should form an independent body that reviews cases before action is taken based on the law, Cheang suggests.

Potential Penalties

Under the new law, websites and individuals spreading fake news face potential financial penalties.

Individuals found guilty of contravening the law can face fines of up to 50,000 SGD (about $36,000) and/or up to five years in prison. If the "fake news" is posted using "an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot," the total potential fine rises to 100,000 SGD (about $73,000), and/or up to 10 years in prison.

Companies such as Facebook, if found guilty of spreading "fake news" would face fines of up to 1 million SGD (about $735,000).

A Significant Area of Concern

Clearly, spreading fake news can have serious consequences. For example, in India viral rumours about kidnappers, spread through Facebook and WhatsApp, led to the lynching deaths of some 20 people last year, according to local news reports.

A 2018 survey by Ipsos, a global independent market research agency, found that 79 percent of Singaporeans are "somewhat" or "very confident" in their ability to detect fake news. When presented with five fake news headlines and asked if they were real, 91 percent incorrectly identified one or more as being real.

Fake news is a real threat that must be addressed . But it's also essential to protect freedom of speech, including criticisms of governments.

Tom Wills, an advisory board member at Evrensel Capital Partners who is based in Singapore, calls for striking a balance. "I support an approach that is more like "moderated free speech" where all opinions can be respectfully expressed, but blatant hate speech, fake news, or anything else that's designed to manipulate or incite people to violence, is restricted," Wills tells me.

Wills makes a good point. But if the law is used as an instrument to curtail freedom of speech, it does more harm than good.

Balance of Power

Cheang offers some reasonable suggestions regarding enforcement of Singapore's new law:

  • Create an independent panel of experts who will decide on when to execute the law;
  • Prohibit government leaders from being involved in enforcing the law.
  • Establish an independent audit team to review policing practices and create a feedback system on how to make the law more efficient;
  • Take steps to educate young people on fake news.

Singapore is one of the first countries to enact a law designed to help curb the spread of fake news. So the country's experience with the law is being closely watched by others.

To ensure the law's sanctity, it must be enforced only when absolutely necessary. By labelling a blog critical of the government false, the government risks undercutting the viability of the law.

About the Author

Suparna Goswami

Suparna Goswami

Associate Editor, ISMG

Goswami has more than 10 years of experience in the field of journalism. She has covered a variety of beats including global macro economy, fintech, startups and other business trends. Before joining ISMG, she contributed for Forbes Asia, where she wrote about the Indian startup ecosystem. She has also worked with UK-based International Finance Magazine and leading Indian newspapers, such as DNA and Times of India.

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