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Fake accounts, bots that spread fake news to be targeted in new laws

SINGAPORE — Under the proposed new laws against fake news tabled in Parliament on Monday (April 1), the Government will be able to direct tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter to disable fake online accounts and bots from spreading falsehoods in Singapore.

Research has found that fake accounts and bots have been used by organised fake news operators, which use them to undermine the sovereignty of their target countries.

Research has found that fake accounts and bots have been used by organised fake news operators, which use them to undermine the sovereignty of their target countries.

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SINGAPORE — Under the proposed new laws against fake news tabled in Parliament on Monday (April 1), the Government will be able to direct tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter to disable fake online accounts and bots from spreading falsehoods in Singapore.

The law defines fake accounts as online accounts which intentionally mislead people about the identity of who is truly running it.

Bots are automated accounts that may be programmed to spread fake news.

Both are capable of amplifying misinformation online, the Ministry of Law noted.

Research has found that both fake accounts and bots have been used by organised fake news operators, which use them to undermine the sovereignty of their target countries.

For instance, false posts claiming that leaked campaign documents showed French President Emmanuel Macron engaging in illegal activity were amplified by bots during the French Presidential election in May 2017.

According to the BBC, 47,000 tweets with the hashtag #MacronLeaks were posted in under four hours, which quickly placed the hashtag on Twitter’s “trending” list. While it was unclear who was behind spreading the leaks, Mr Macron’s campaign team said that they were linked to Russia.

Under Singapore’s proposed laws, these are the actions the Government will be able to take against fake accounts and bots:

ACCOUNT RESTRICTION DIRECTION

This direction can be issued to order an Internet intermediary, such as Facebook or Twitter, to shut down fake accounts and bots on its platform, to stop them from spreading falsehoods in Singapore.

The direction will be issued if the fake account or bot has spread a falsehood that is deemed to have undermined public interest, or if the account is engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” such as coordinating its activity with other accounts to mislead Singaporeans.

Once issued, the platform will have to ensure that its services are not being used to communicate false statements in Singapore through those specified fake accounts.

The platform will also have to stop the account holder from using his or her accounts to interact with Singaporean users.

To determine if an online account is authentic, the Government will consider several factors, including whether the account was created in a country that is not where the account holder claims to be from.

It will also consider other factors such as whether there is a pattern of suspicious activity and when the account was created.

The Account Restriction Direction may run indefinitely, and require the tech company to act even outside of Singapore.

Individuals that fail to comply with the Account Restriction Direction, regardless of which country they are based in, may be slapped with a fine of up to S$20,000 and/ or imprisoned up to a year.

Non-individuals, such as companies, may be fined up to S$1 million.

ACCESS BLOCKING ORDER

The Info-communications Media Development Authority, under the direction of a Minister, may order an internet access service provider, such as Singtel or StarHub, to disable netizens’ access to an online location in Singapore where the false statement is being communicated.

The order will be issued if:

  • A website has failed to comply with the Account Restriction Direction

  • the Internet intermediary controls its users’ access to the online location where the statement is being communicated,

  • The Government is satisfied that one or more Singaporeans have used or are using the services of the internet access service provider to access the online location.

If an Internet access service provider fails to comply with the order, it may be subject to a fine of up to S$20,000 a day for each day the order is not complied with, up to a total of S$500,000 for each offence.

REVERSING THE ACCOUNT RESTRICTION DIRECTION

To reverse the Account Restriction Direction, the online platform or holder of the online account must first apply to the Minister to cancel the direction.

If the Minister refuses to cancel the application, the intermediary or platform that has received an Account Restriction Direction may then appeal to the High Court to overturn the direction.  Owners of these online accounts may also appeal to the High Court.

The Bill states that the High Court may only quash the Account Restriction Direction if the following conditions are fulfilled:

  • The online account or services of the online platform have not been used to communicate the false statement or behaviour.

  • The statement communicated is true, or if the statement is determined to be not a fact, but something else such as an opinion or criticism.

  • The account holder is determined to not be engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

  • It is not technically possible to comply with the Direction.

  • The account is not inauthentic

However, any Account Restriction Direction must be in place until the High Court has established that it may be set aside.

The direction may also be removed if the Minister who instructed it to be in place chooses to cancel it.

OTHER MEASURES

The new laws will also introduce legally enforceable Codes of Practice to ensure that the systems and processes of online platforms mitigate the risk of abuse of their platforms by malicious actors.

The Codes will provide guidelines to detect, control and safeguard against co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour and the misuse of online accounts.

In addition, those who knowingly communicate a falsehood online, and do so through a fake account or bot, may receive “aggravated penalties”.

A person who is found guilty of deliberately creating and/or spreading fake news can be fined up to S$50,000 or imprisoned up to five years, or both.

But if he uses an inauthentic online account or bot to distribute the fake news, he stands to be fined up to S$100,000 or jailed for up to 10 years, or both

Those who make or alter a bot for the purpose of spreading a falsehood will also receive aggravated penalties — a fine of up to S$30,000 or imprisonment of up to three years, or both

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