Singapore's fake news law used 33 times to date, including 19 times against Covid-19 misinformation

Singapore's fake news law used 33 times to date, including 19 times against Covid-19 misinformation

Minister for Communication and Information Josephine Teo (centre) at the Future Tech Forum in London, on Nov 29, 2021.

SINGAPORE – The Republic’s fake news law has been used 33 times since it came into force in 2019, with more than half of these instances, 19, for correcting Covid-19 misinformation.

Being able to take swift action against pandemic falsehoods “has helped to build trust about vaccines, and allowed us to achieve high vaccination coverage, with 94 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated”, said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo.

Each case of fake news that the law deals with can result in more than one direction issued by the Government to address the falsehoods, such as those posted on multiple platforms.

Mrs Teo was speaking at a panel discussion on how governance frameworks can keep pace with technology at London’s Future Tech Forum on Monday (Nov 29).

She said the Singapore Government was worried about the risks of misinformation, and cited a study last year which showed that six in 10 people here received false information about Covid-19 on social media.

On Monday, two men were issued correction directions under Singapore’s fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

The Ministry of Health said this was done as local author Cheah Kit Sun and opposition party chief Goh Meng Seng had shared misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

They will each have to publish correction notices at the top of each webpage or social media post containing the false statements. Mr Cheah has complied.

Other Covid-19 falsehoods dealt with by the law in the past include claims of mask supplies here running out.

Mrs Teo later told reporters over video conferencing on Wednesday that some participants at the London forum expressed “serious interest” in Singapore’s Pofma and wanted to find out more about what the law involved.

“The interest was a positive one. People wanted to know how their own countries should consider similar legislation,” said Mrs Teo, without elaborating on who had expressed interest.

The forum’s attendees included government representatives, policymakers and technology leaders from the Group of Seven countries including Britain, Germany, Japan and the United States, as well as invited participants from countries such as Australia, Singapore and South Korea.

Mrs Teo said that forum participants discussed how their countries grappled with challenges against the fight against Covid-19 and there was growing international consensus that digital regulations are needed to build trust among people and businesses in the digital domain.

But beyond regulations, she said Singapore is also tackling fake news through public education, citing efforts like those by the National Library Board to help the public discern fact from fiction.

Still, Professor Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information believes that Pofma is not strong enough to deal with Covid-19 fake news – it requires a correction notice to be displayed with the falsehood but does not take it down.

“Misinformation in this case is potentially lethal,” said Prof Ang, adding that Covid-19 fake news should be removed and there is legislation here that allows this to be done.

The need for laws to curb online harm and threats to individuals and society – even if they are not illegal but are detrimental to people’s well being – garnered strong support from the forum attendees, Mrs Teo said.

For instance, the European Union is working on the Digital Services Act that gets Big Tech companies such as Apple, Google, Meta and Twitter to do more to tackle illegal content on their platforms.

In the US, lawmakers want more regulation of companies like Meta, the company that owns Facebook, after allegations in September that the social media giant knew its products fuelled hate and harmed young people’s mental health.

Asked if Singapore would also use regulations to clamp down on Big Tech like other countries, Mrs Teo said that the Republic’s approach is not the same.

“Some of the companies are very large and their platforms are very powerful and influential. That means we have to engage them and understand what the issues are,” she said. “But the approach we prefer to take in Singapore is a more collaborative one. We’d like to bring them into the conversation and involve them in designing solutions for them.”

Still, it does not mean that when regulations are needed, Singapore will not go ahead with them, said the minister.

“Even in designing laws or updating our codes of practices, we would want to engage with all the companies, including tech giants, to understand if they will be impacted or not. That is the approach we take in Singapore,” she said.

She added that the Government is studying whether Singapore needs regulations to counter the ill effects of online harm, and will also seek feedback and proposals from an Alliance for Action workgroup formed to tackle this matter.

The industry-led alliance, launched in July, comprises representatives from the public and private sectors, as well as members from community organisations.

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