Singapore cannot count on social media platforms to protect it from fake news: Edwin Tong

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

Singapore “cannot rely on the goodwill” of service provider platforms – such as social media giant Facebook – to protect the nation from “disinformation campaigns”, said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong on Tuesday (20 November).

Speaking in Parliament, the 48-year-old was referring to Facebook’s recent refusal to remove an inflammatory post linking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

“(Facebook) will allow itself to be a platform for the spread of lies, falsity, to poison and divide society with such lies, encourage xenophobia and profit from that,” said Tong, who is also Senior Minister of State for Health and a Marine Parade GRC Member of Parliament (MP).

At this point in time, there are limited options to stem the spread…it is difficult to curtail them.”

Responding to a question by Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai on the allegations that appeared in online platforms like the States Times Review and China Press, Tong reiterated that the incident reinforces the need for legislative powers to “protect (Singapore) from deliberate falsehoods”.

Inflammatory post

On 6 November, sociopolitical website States Times Review shared on Facebook its article carrying the headline: “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”.

The social media giant had refused the Info-communications Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) request to have the article taken down while stating that the company will “handle any government request to restrict alleged misinformation carefully and thoughtfully, consistent with our approach to government requests around the world”. 

Facebook, however, “does not have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”, said a spokesperson.

While access to the States Times Review site has since been restricted by local internet service providers as per IMDA’s request, the Facebook post had been shared over 1,700 times as of press time. The site was founded by Singaporean political activist Alex Tan who is based in Australia.

Calling the social media giant’s refusal “surprising”, Tong said in Parliament, “The slow drip of poison over a period of time can one day result and burst into violence.”

When asked by Murali whether the attitudes of social media giants towards take-down requests would differ if the demands were made by an independent body, such as a judiciary, Tong replied, “Yes, perhaps so”.

A Facebook spokesperson referred Yahoo News Singapore to the company’s previous statement when contacted for comment on Tong’s remarks.

‘Pattern’ of spreading falsehood

Tong noted that a similar article had been published by the States Times Review in May, but it was later “repackaged on 5 November” with a quote from investigative news site Sarawak Report.

The newer version of the article contained a “malicious twist” and “conspiracy theory” alleging that PM Lee and the government had allowed the laundering of 1MDB funds to take place in Singapore in exchanges for deals signed with Malaysia that favoured the Republic.

The spread of falsehood in this incident “followed a pattern that has been established elsewhere”, where it first appears on an obscure site and is later picked up by mainstream media outlets, “lending credence to the claims”, said Tong.

A “concerted effort” had also been made by seven Facebook users to share the post 45 times over three days across 39 Facebook groups, “including groups that ostensibly cover unrelated subjects”, he added. 

For one, the post was “very quickly and widely” spread to five different Facebook groups within the span of just one minute, noted Tong.

This resulted in the Facebook post and article being “potentially seen by over 800,000 users” on Facebook, with an estimated reach of 380,000 on the social media platform. 

The article was reproduced on Malaysian website The Coverage and picked up by Malaysian Chinese language newspaper China Press, whose article received 45,000 views by 8 November.

Two YouTube videos were also uploaded in which the allegations were translated into Mandarin, said Tong.

Moves to debunk false claims

The articles by Malaysian media outlets – including China Post – were later taken down following a clarification issued by the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, which called them “fake news and clearly libellous”.

The Sarawak Post also made two Facebook posts, one slamming the States Times Review article for being “misleading” and “erroneous” and the other debunking its false claims.

Tong also stressed that there was no basis for the corruption allegations made against Singapore officials over their alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal.

“We are the first and only country to date – of at least ten jurisdictions involved in this – to have secured convictions of individuals who facilitated the laundering,” he said. “Singapore has been providing information to the Malaysian side on 1MDB fund flows since March 2015.”

Related stories:

States Times Review to shut down Facebook page ‘in 2 weeks’ following ‘libellous’ 1MDB article

MAS files police report over States Times Review article

Singapore: ‘The Coverage’ article linking PM Lee, 1MDB ‘fake news, libellous’