Highlights: Shanmugam's opening speech on fake news law in Parliament

Minister for Law K Shanmugam. (PHOTO: Parliament screencap)
Minister for Law K Shanmugam. (PHOTO: Parliament screencap)

SINGAPORE — Parliament last Wednesday (8 May) passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), which will give the government the power to take individuals as well as online news sources and platforms to task if they disseminate “deliberate online falsehoods”.

The government has said that the new law will help Singapore guard against malicious actors who knowingly spread harmful falsehoods and act against public interest.

Under the law, a minister can order or direct an individual to issue a correction alongside content deemed false, or to take down the content. It does not cover criticism, opinions, satire, and parody, according to the government.

The law will also give ministers the power to direct online sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to put warnings next to posts that are deemed false.

Proposed sanctions under the law include fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail.

Here are some excerpts from Minister for Law K Shanmugam’s two-hour opening speech at POFMA’s second reading last Tuesday.

On the Bill and democracy:

“The Bill provides for narrower set of powers, compared with powers Government already has...The existing legislation with broad powers have been in place for some time.”

“But the Bill is not a silver bullet. It cannot address all the issues.”

“Democracy itself is under serious threat. It would be unwise for us to just watch and do nothing because it can sweep us over very quickly.”

“I believe we are at one of those crucial turning points in history. It’s not quite Gotterdammerung, but a turn for the worse.”

“Traditional media holds power over society’s information, it has the ability to influence minds and viewpoints.”

“When the media acts responsibly, it serves democracy. When they do not, it damages democracy.”

On infrastructure of fact:

“When there is no proper public discourse when infrastructure of fact is damaged, then democracy and societies are at serious risk.”

“Public discourse can only take place when there is free, responsible speech.”

“Like public infrastructure, society depends on it. It provides society with a shared reality.”

“Trust in public institutions is a cornerstone of the infrastructure of fact.”

On Singapore being a target:

“(Singapore’s) superiority in conventional military force means it will be futile to start a war with Singapore. Therefore, militarily weaker countries will then focus on other means to weaken Singapore, sap our will from inside, create deep internal divisions and keep us in a permanent state of internal dissension.”

“The evidence is that this is already happening...to sap people’s support for SAF and defence, and to try and shift Singapore’s foreign policy as well.”

“Trolls, bots, can, and have, been used in Singapore. We have noticed spikes in activity from inauthentic accounts when we have discussions on various issues of public concern.

One example: whenever there are bilateral issues with Malaysia – these go up. We recently estimated it went up about 30 per cent.”

On the growth of falsehoods:

“New media has been heavily exploited to batter this infrastructure of fact, which in turn, weakens trust in public discourse, in institutions and in democracy itself.”

“It has now been used to send out on an industrial scale, falsehoods to mislead people.”

“Digital advertising models have turned websites into virtual real estate...This business model has created an attention economy...In this economy, falsehoods are a strong currency.”

On social media and tech companies:

“From a main artery sustained by mainstream newspapers, public discourse is fragmenting into millions of social media groups and conversations.”

“Mainstream media was likened by law professor Dr Thio Li-ann to a public street...In this system, people are made to see and show civility toward viewpoints they may not otherwise like and choose to see. But social media does the opposite.”

“The tech companies have held themselves out as making the world a better place. Can they be relied upon to self-regulate? The evidence over the years shows clearly no…Facebook users lodged thousands of complaints over hate speech. Facebook did nothing.”

“These are not children’s games. This is serious business. Tech companies will say many things to try and advocate their position.”

On opinion vs false statement of fact:

Death penalty: “A Professor of Law states that the death penalty in Singapore does not deter crime, as shown by several studies. These studies present real data.

That is a conclusion drawn from studies. It is a statement of opinion, and not covered by the Bill. But if the professor refers to a non-existent study, or non-existent data, then that is a false statement of fact.”

Permit regimes: “Person A states that the government is showing “double standards” by having two different permit regimes to govern public activist events on political issues on the one hand, and a public meet-up by an influencer on the other.

It is true that two different permit regimes apply to the two different kinds of events. Therefore, A’s statement is an opinion, and is not covered by the Bill.

However, if A says or implies that the same permit rules govern both kinds of events and double standards were applied for the granting of permits, essentially suggesting bias – based on the point that the same legislation applies to both. That is a false statement of fact. It can be covered by the Bill.”

Social welfare: “Person B publishes an online article stating that the social welfare system in Singapore has gaps. That conclusion is drawn from interviews with government officials and social workers. The government can disagree with the conclusion. This does not come within the Bill.

If, however, B’s article says that welfare assistance had been denied to a needy elderly person, when assistance had in fact been given, that is a false statement of fact. If public interest is affected, it can come under this Bill.”

NUS voyeur case: “Recently, in the case relating to Mr Nicholas Lim, there were questions as to why he was not charged. The police investigated the case. They gave conditional warning.

Some made allegations that Mr Lim was not prosecuted because his parents were influential. This was false: father was a driver in the public transport sector; mother a housewife.”

On examples of falsehoods around the world:

Ukraine: “A foreign country, unnamed, used falsehoods to build a narrative that the Ukrainian government was fascist and corrupt...For example, that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a child, which was later debunked. Volunteers who fought against Ukraine said they were motivated because of these supposed atrocities.”

Germany: “A girl fabricated a claim she had been assaulted by three Middle Eastern migrants. Foreign media outlets reported on that widely, suggesting it was true, specifically from one country. Reports were spread on social media. Berlin authorities investigated, confirmed the girl’s claim had been fabricated.”

US: “An American man called Paul Horner set up at least 20 fake news websites. Some used deceptive URLs to trick readers into thinking that they were mainstream sources, such as ABC News, or CNN.

Some examples include during a government shutdown, President Obama had used his own money to keep open a government funded Muslim culture museum.”

France: “After terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, a video was posted, described as showing ‘Moderate Muslims’ celebrating the attack. It was actually a video of people celebrating a cricket match victory in Pakistan. But nearly 500,000 views in a few hours.”

Indonesia: “A ‘Muslim Cyber Army’ used falsehoods and hate speech to inflame sentiments against gays and Chinese.”

India: “Child abduction rumours spread on WhatsApp, 69 mob attacks, 33 deaths.”

More parliament stories here.

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