Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong said on Wednesday (3 April) that he disagreed with the view that there will be a “chilling effect” on political discussions in Singapore when a sweeping bill to tackle the spread of online falsehoods is passed.
Speaking at a talk held at the Singapore Management University (SMU)’s Li Ka Shing library, Tong explained that there are clear distinctions in the bill between stating falsehoods versus voicing an opinion or criticism.
He was part of a three-member panel discussion on free speech and falsehoods at the Truth and Lies: Trust in Times of Information Disorder forum and was addressing a question by Eugene Tan, the panel’s moderator and an associate professor of law at the SMU.
“If I say: ‘I think the government’s policies on the CPF are terrible,’ – that’s not a fact, that is a criticism,” said Tong to an audience of about 160 people. “If I say: ‘The CPF account is bankrupt – the money is not there,’ and I published it and causes a panic amongst people. That’s a (false) statement of fact.”
However, he noted that some, potentially those less educated, might initially struggle to understand the differences. As such, it is necessary for the government to undertake efforts to help the public better understand the law, he added.
Tabled in Parliament on Monday, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will grant the government powers to act against online falsehoods – defined as false or misleading statement of facts – created by “malicious actors”, so as to protect public interest.
It does not cover criticism, opinions, satire, and parody.
The proposed bill has attracted criticisms that it will infringe on human rights, particularly freedom of speech and media freedom. But Tong argued that it is not the case during his introduction at the panel.
One such criticism touched on the perceived broad definitions of the proposed bill, which may leave “maximum regulatory discretion to the government officers skewed to view as ‘misleading’ or ‘false’ the sorts of news that challenge Singapore’s preferred political narratives”, said Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson in a report published on its website.
Singapore is currently ranked 151 among 180 countries rated in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, below the likes of Russia and Myanmar.
Tong explained, “If we wanted to block the site, or remove the publisher’s licence and so on, that can already be done today. No additional laws will be needed to achieve the outcome.”
Under the proposed law, the “primary” remedy – barring those going viral quickly and of a serious offensive nature that it must be removed immediately – will be a “correction” to be tagged on the online publisher’s original article containing the supposed falsehoods, he added.
“Many of the other 40-odd countries looking at this bill don’t have this kind of nuanced remedy. We decided to have this because it first ultimately makes for a more discerning public – you see the materials and…you judge for yourself,” said Tong, echoing comments that Law Minister K Shanmugam shared with reporters on Monday.
If an online site had published three falsehoods that were “against the public interest” over the previous six months, its “ability to profit” will be cut off, without shutting it down.
Citing a 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, Tong said that falsehoods are found to have a reach of up to 100,000 people while true statements rarely reach more than 1,000. Falsehoods are also 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted, the study found.
But legislation is “certainly far from the silver bullet” and other measures such as boosting resources for media literacy and strengthening online fact-checking are necessary, added Tong, who cited a REACH survey indicating widespread support for tighter measures against falsehoods.
The survey, conducted in February last year, found that 90 per cent of 887 respondents agree that there should be more effective laws requiring those who publish online falsehoods to remove or correct them.
Responding to a question by a member of the public on the consequences for the government if it were an agent of disinformation, Tong replied that it would be subjected to same oversight and standards that publishers face.
“Obviously over time, if this keeps happening, then trust in the government will also be undermined,” said Tong. “The government is not the one that stands outside of the system, without any (judicial) oversight.”
Those convicted of violating the fake news law can face criminal sanctions including a fine of up to $1 million or be jailed up to 10 years or both, according to the proposed bill.
Tong compared eliminating online falsehoods that affect public interest in Singapore to correcting a physical safety, such as shutting down the public works of a contractor due to safety lapses.
Similarly, the responsibility falls on the government to make the first call to combat falsehoods, he added.
The Marine Parade GRC Member of Parliament (MP) also noted that gossip can quickly accelerate online and “press on” the faultlines of society, including issues like race and religion.
A member of the public also asked Tong about the aid that people who challenge the government’s stance on whether something is false or an opinion can receive.
“Those of us who need financial help, support or legal advice, systems are available in place to assist them…We are not talking about going to court on a complicated two-week trial or hearing that requires a lot of time and expense to deal with,” Tong replied.
According to a media invite issued last Friday, P, Head of Governments and Elections at Twitter, and a Google representative were originally scheduled to speak at the forum’s second panel on efforts in advocacy and education in building trust. Both subsequently dropped out of participating in the event.