POFMA effective in swiftly responding to falsehoods during COVID-19 outbreak: Iswaran

SINGAPORE - 2020/02/14: People lines up to purchase protective face masks in a local pharmacy in Singapore. Singapore declared the COVID-19 outbreak as Code Orange on February 7, 2020. (Photo by Maverick Asio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Members of the public lining up to purchase protective face masks in a local pharmacy in Singapore. (PHOTO: by Maverick Asio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has been effective in providing a swift response in ensuring falsehoods do not gain traction and mislead the public during the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran gave the response during his ministry’s Committee of Supply (COS) debate in Parliament on Tuesday (3 March) to a query by Member of Parliament (MP) Cedric Foo on whether the execution of POFMA is a job best left to the judiciary or the government’s executive branch.

“In a situation like an epidemic, it’s essential that our population stays calm, and gets advice and information from reliable sources, and is able to then take appropriate measures,” Iswaran said.

POFMA and the ability and authority to exercise its related tools to deal with such a situation have been very effective to date, he added.

“In the course of introducing the legislation, a key reason for wanting to site the authority with the executive arm was to ensure the ability to respond decisively and swiftly, given the virulence of falsehoods that are pervade online. And I think our COVID-19 experience has reinforced that conviction.”

POFMA invoked several times during outbreak

POFMA has been invoked on numerous occasions during the COVID-19 outbreak to issue corrective directions to several online content providers for perpetuating falsehoods on the outbreak.

At its most extreme, the POFMA office has issued a Disabling Order to the States Times Review (STR) Facebook page for repeatedly refusing to comply with correction orders to take down falsehoods.

Iswaran said that the COVID-19 outbreak has not only been a medical and public health challenge, but also a psychological battle against fear and uncertainty.

The government has sought to ease the fears of Singaporeans and keep their trust by being transparent about the outbreak, he said.

“Some have caused anxiety in our population by putting out false alerts, and proper correction orders were used to swiftly expose them by placing the truth alongside.

“It is abundantly clear that it would have been much harder to quell the spread of misinformation and keep the calm of our society without this set of measures, which are designed specifically to address falsehoods.”

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