SINGAPORE — Singapore deals with falsehoods by attaching “health warnings” to them, similar to how Twitter handled Donald Trump’s tweets before the social media platform banned the US President.
In contrast with calls in the US for social media companies to permanently remove Trump’s incendiary statements following the storming of the Capitol building, Law Minister K Shanmugam called Singapore’s way to tackle fabrications under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) a "half-step".
Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, was speaking in a pre-recorded interview last Thursday (7 January) ahead of its broadcast at the Reuters Next conference on Tuesday.
“Many reasonable people say...the adding of labels to videos or even President Trump's own statements are not good enough. They need to be taken down. That's what's being suggested – that a democratically elected leader of the United States, people are saying his account should be taken down,” he said, citing a New York Times article.
“POFMA is nothing like that.”
But he stressed that governments cannot “subcontract out” to social media companies to help maintain public order and safe spaces for discussions. The “consensus” that tackling fake news cannot be left only to tech platforms is gaining globally because such entities are driven by commercial interests, he added.
“So it's got to be some authority, which is able to move quickly. And ultimately I suspect, the matter will have to be finally arbitrated through some sort of judicial process,” he said.
“Different countries are trying to deal with it. I don't think many countries have yet managed to get it to the legislative process. We have been one of those who have been able to get it done.”
Passed in Singapore’s Parliament on 8 May 2019, POFMA grants the government powers to act against online falsehoods created by “malicious actors” in order to protect public interest. It does not cover criticism, opinions, satire, and parody, the government has said.
The law, which came into effect in October of the same year, allows the relevant ministers to order news outlets, social media platforms, and users to carry correction notices at the top of their posts or pages that are deemed to contain falsehoods, as well as a link to Factually, the government fact-checking website.
Perpetrators can also face fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail.
POFMA has attracted criticisms that it would infringe on human rights, particularly freedom of speech and media freedom.
During the run-up to the General Elections last year, the government issued several corrective directives under POFMA to opposition parties and news outlets, including CNA online, over what it considered as inaccurate comments by opposition politicians.
“The fact that a number of them happen to be opposition politicians suggest to you as to who then engages such conduct but our framework is – look at what the facts are,” Shanmugam said, when asked about concerns that the law is being used as a political tool.
Any party who feels the law has been unfairly used has the right to challenge a POFMA decision in court, he added.
“But in many of those instances, they never challenge (it) because they knew they were lying,” noted Shanmugam.
Compared to how many times the law was used during GE2020, he added, “I think what is more notable is how many times they (parties issued with POFMA directives) didn’t challenge.”
When asked why POFMA has not been invoked since then, Shanmugam said there haven't been “such statements”.
The “health warnings” under the law allow the public to decide for themselves, he added. “That encourages greater transparency. So why should anyone be upset about that?”
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