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Draft fake news laws an ‘exercise of govt power’ to set out the truth

SINGAPORE — Online falsehoods can have serious consequences, as borne out in a 2016 photo showing the collapsed roof of Punggol Waterway Terraces that turned out to be a hoax.

SINGAPORE — Online falsehoods can have serious consequences, as borne out in a 2016 photo showing the collapsed roof of Punggol Waterway Terraces that turned out to be a hoax.

Or imagine if someone spreads a falsehood claiming that children will become autistic if they take a certain vaccine.

Law Minister K Shanmugam cited these examples in an interview with CNA on the recently tabled draft laws to tackle online falsehoods.

He called the proposed laws an “exercise of government power” that also applies to many other areas, such as running the economy, conducting investigations and making arrests.

"If there are riots, if there are deep divisions or if there is a serious public inconvenience in that people are actually thinking that a fire has broken out, or their building has collapsed, stuff like that, then it falls on the Government to deal with it," he said.

"The Government is best placed. What we are talking about is setting out a clarification, sometimes a take-down. And I don’t see why this needs to be politicised.

“This is an exercise of Government power, just like the exercise of so many other Government powers. Powers of arrest, powers of detention, powers of investigation, powers to run the economy, spend billions of dollars… (and) put out the truth."

In November 2016, alternative news site All Singapore Stuff published an article with a claim from a contributor that the top floors of Punggol Waterway Terraces — a public housing development — had collapsed.

The article was taken down shortly after and the authorities debunked it as a hoax.

Mr Shanmugam said in the television interview, which aired on Friday (April 12), that the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force had rushed to the scene, where many young families live.

“If we had had the power to immediately clarify that this was false and require the person and the (online) platforms to push out a notice to everybody: ‘Those of you who have read this article, please note that the Government has clarified that there is no roof collapse’. Would it not be better?” he asked.

If, say, someone spreads a falsehood claiming that children will come down with autism or measles after taking a certain vaccine, Mr Shanmugam said that the Ministry of Health should be able to put out a clarification and “get it carried on the platforms that are carrying the untruth”.

The various ministries, he said, have the “expertise” in their fields to set the record straight.

When passed into law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill — introduced in Parliament on April 1 — will give government ministers broad powers to stop the spread of online falsehoods and act against those who disseminate them.

They will have the power to compel online news sources and platforms to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods and, in extreme and urgent cases, take down an errant article.

The Bill defines a falsehood as a “false or misleading” statement of fact, and does not cover opinions, criticism, satire or parody.

It has drawn mixed reactions, with some supporting the need to debunk falsehoods as quickly as possible. Others have pilloried it as a tool that would give the Government latitude to control online content.

99 PER CENT OF SINGAPOREANS 'NEED NOT WORRY'

Dealing with public concerns over the Bill, Mr Shanmugam stressed that “99 per cent of people don’t have to worry about what they do, 99 per cent of the time”.

While most people receive messages, and share and forward them, he said “none of that is an issue”.

“If it turns out to be false, the primary approach is to ask the technology platforms to put up a clarification that’s pushed to everyone,” said the minister.

“So, for most of us, the day after this Bill becomes law, assuming Parliament passes it, life carries on as per normal. The people who need to be concerned are those who profit from and peddle in falsehoods.”

Most people do not fall into this category as they simply passed on falsehoods that others created without knowing that they were false, said Mr Shanmugam.

“Nothing changes for them,” he stressed. “They will receive, and I’m sure many of them will be happy to receive, a notice saying that if you want to know the truth, you can go to such a place.”

On whether the proposed law may be abused, Mr Shanmugam said that he cannot vouch for how future governments will act.

He reiterated, however, that falsehoods are a serious problem, having become “the new currency that a lot of people trade in”.

“It has got serious consequences for people in terms of blood, in terms of money, in terms of lives, and it is wrong for the Singapore Government to keep quiet,” he added, noting that countries such as Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom already have similar laws in place or have put forward such laws to deal with the problem.

Reiterating Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comments earlier this week, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore puts in place what works for the country.

“We exercise those powers honestly and we allow ourselves to be judged, and periodically, the people judge us at elections and they look at the results of what we have done,” he added.

“The pluses, minuses… bottom line, how does it work. So that’s the way a transparent government has got to work.”

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Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill fake news

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