On 20 September 2018, Singapore’s Deliberate Online Falsehoods Committee released a report offering 22 recommendations to address “deliberate online falsehoods” — what has become known as ‘fake news.’
As a multi-racial and multi-religious state, Singapore is vulnerable to the spreading of falsehoods to stoke tensions, whether by foreign state actors or hostile non-state groups. The ‘fake news’ phenomenon has pushed governments around the world to adopt laws to control its spread: in South East Asia, Thailand’s draft cybersecurity law punishes the spread of false information with a jail sentence of up to seven years. Ahead of the 2019 presidential election, Indonesia’s communications ministry is taking action to monitor and discredit ‘fake news’. In the West, France is deliberating a new bill to improve the efficiency of content takedown and German law allows authorities to require social media sites to remove hate speech, fake news, and illegal materials.
Following this global trend, Singapore formed a select committee — a group of several members of parliament formed to report on this issue — and held an eight-day hearing and wide-ranging consultations with stakeholders to develop 22 recommendations, including developing a national framework for a public education programme, imposing a “demonetisation regime”, and establishing legislation that will enable the government to impose criminal charges on those found guilty of perpetrating deliberate online falsehoods. The committee’s scale and depth demonstrates the government’s commitment to tackling this issue and signals what kind of response will be required from industry.
Several tech companies were singled out for “generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false.” In an effort to restore trust among consumers, companies will need to make changes to their practices regarding shared content. Some suggestions by the committee include prioritising credible content, limiting the circulation of false information through their advertising tools and increasing transparency in sponsored content. Several companies have already used machine learning to identify undesirable content and remove fake accounts.
While critical of industry, the select committee recognised the importance of government and industry collaboration to deliver a holistic solution, such as supporting start-ups that are developing new tools, launching a “fact-checking coalition”, or supporting the development of “quality journalism.” The select committee calls for organisations and public institutions to respond promptly to online falsehoods and provide the correct information. Singapore remains an attractive destination for tech investment — Facebook recently announced its plans to build its first data centre in the country. Maintaining and building on this reputation will require a partnership that addresses public concerns.
The committee’s report raises several questions regarding the next steps for the Singaporean government. How much lead time will companies have to react to government actions? What types of criminal sanctions will be imposed on those who are charged with deliberately spreading falsehoods? What will be the penalties imposed on the industry if they don’t meet the requirements set by the government? The legislation called for by this report may address these questions, but it’s unclear when or if the government will begin drafting a law.
Singapore’s crack down on “fake news” has yet to prove its worth and future legislation will provide a clearer picture of the government’s approach. As one of the most modern and business-friendly economies in the region, Singapore has the potential to set the standard for the rest of the region, particularly regarding the collaboration between government and industry.
Author: Seha Yatim, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership