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With democracy at stake, fake news laws will support 'infrastructure of fact': Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — Around the world, a breakdown of trust between people and their governments has put democracy under serious threat.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

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SINGAPORE — Around the world, a breakdown of trust between people and their governments has put democracy under serious threat.

While issues such as growing inequality are fuelling much of this distrust, what’s making it worse is the fact that both mainstream and new media are being used to spread falsehoods.

The results can be disastrous, even violent, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

And it is against this backdrop, he said, that Singapore seeks to enact laws against fake news, to support the “infrastructure of fact” that upholds a functioning democracy.

In a speech lasting over two hours in Parliament on Tuesday (May 7) as he opened the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, Mr Shanmugam painstakingly laid out his case for why the proposed laws — among the most contentious in recent history — are necessary, and hit back at critics who have questioned its scope.

DEMOCRACY UNDER THREAT

Falsehoods have attacked societies in both developed and developing countries, from Germany to Sri Lanka, resulting in consequences as serious as murder, riots and the election of extremist politicians, Mr Shanmugam said.

But even when the results are not so extreme, falsehoods can have a pernicious impact on the functioning of society, he added, as they cause “people’s sense of reality to gradually become unhinged from the facts”.

“Populists use lies to attack institutions, invoke divisive rhetoric. They use conspiracy theories to explain complex issues in simple terms, making people believe them. Truth becomes completely irrelevant,” said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that under their influence, even the most extreme lies “which we will normally dismiss” could become believable and affect public life.

This creates a dangerous situation, Mr Shanmugam said, as trust in public institutions is important for society’s “well-being and prosperity” as they deliver economic and social benefits as well as steer countries through crises.

Studies have shown, for example, that a low level of trust in the medical system can affect its ability to manage disease outbreaks.

Already in Western democracies, trust in governments is falling significantly, Mr Shanmugam said.

In the United States, for example, a study showed that in 1958, 75 per cent of Americans trusted their government. But the figure has plunged to 17 per cent this year.

Similarly, trust in institutions, such as the media and the medical profession, is also on the decline among Americans.

Singapore so far is holding steady when it comes to trust in the Government and its institutions, said Mr Shanmugam.

The Singapore Government scored 67 points, according to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which is higher than the 47-point average scored across 26 countries.

Still, he cautioned: “We cannot ignore the global risks”.

“Democracy is under serious threat. It is unwise for us to just watch and do nothing because it can sweep us over very quickly,” he said.

Citing the German opera which captures the final battle with evil powers, Mr Shanmugam added: “I believe we are at one of those crucial turning points in history. May not quite be Götterdämmerung, but a turn for the worse.“

UPHOLDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE OF FACT

A pillar of a democracy is public discourse, which can only take place when there is “free, responsible speech”, Mr Shanmugam said.

And free, responsible speech has to be founded on facts.

Like public infrastructure, he said, society depends on an “infrastructure of fact” that gives society a “shared reality”.

When everyone can agree on the same set of facts, society can have diversity without conflict, and it allows for public participation while still getting decisions made.

“Without it, our political system will malfunction,” Mr Shanmugam warned.

Key to this is a responsible traditional media industry, he added.

“Traditional media holds power over society’s information and has ability to influence minds, viewpoints,” he said. “When media acts responsibly, it serves democracy. When they do not, it damages democracy.”

In other countries, the media has “played a highly corrosive role in eroding trust in many ways”, Mr Shanmugam said, pointing to Australia as an example.

Without specifying a name, a media owner in Australia has been said to have played a major role in ousting former Australian prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, he noted.

In other countries, he said, the media “have the power to destroy institutions and they have done so”.

On top of that, new media, such as social media platforms, can and have been weaponised to spread falsehoods to mislead, Mr Shanmugam said.

Falsehoods come from several sources, he noted: Foreign actors engaging in information warfare, profit-driven players who churn out false clickbait to gain ad revenue, malicious actors using fake news for political ends and people with prejudices who seek to harm other groups.

Mr Shanmugam cited the example of a girl in Germany who made up a story about being assaulted by three Middle Eastern migrants.

The story went viral online and took on a life of its own, evolving along the way to become a fake news story about how the German police were covering up the crime.

Mr Shanmugam noted that Singapore’s proposed fake news laws are “not a silver bullet and cannot address all the issues”.

Still, he added, it is an attempt to deal with one part of the problem: “The serious problems arising from falsehoods spreading through new media, and to try and help support the infrastructure of fact and promote honest speech in public discourse."

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