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Government review underway to deal with fake news

SINGAPORE — The Republic is not spared from the worldwide problem of viral fake news articles, and the Government is mulling over ways to address the issue, given the “limited remedies” under existing laws.

Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam. Photo: Ernest Chua/TODAY

Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam. Photo: Ernest Chua/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — The Republic is not spared from the worldwide problem of viral fake news articles, and the Government is mulling over ways to address the issue, given the “limited remedies” under existing laws.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday (April 3), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that a review is underway as he stressed the real-world consequences of hoaxes circulating on the Internet.

“The Government is seriously considering how to address this fake news issue. We will announce our position once we have completed our review,” he said, without giving more details.

Apart from causing public alarm and damaging the reputations of individuals and businesses, fake news results in emergency resources being wasted, he pointed out.

“There is a much more serious dimension to all of this because fake news today, we must assume, can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign countries,” Mr Shanmugam said in response to questions tabled by Chua Chu Kang GRC Members of Parliament Mr Yee Chia Hsing and Mr Zaqy Mohamad.

Mr Yee asked whether existing laws can be strengthened to “increase the penalties against the author or publisher of fake news on the Internet” while Mr Zaqy asked about, among other things, the Ministry of Law’s plans to “correct false information in a timely manner”, and its assessment on the “likelihood that such news can be manipulated by foreign parties to influence society, including election outcomes and social cohesion”.

In his reply, Mr Shanmugam noted that, around the world, countries are struggling to deal with the scourge: In the United States, fictitious news articles about former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton selling weapons to the Islamic State were rampant before the presidential election last year.

In the United Kingdom, misleading stories that stirred up xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment were circulating before the Brexit referendum.

Citing these examples, Mr Shanmugam said that many countries have called for a tough stance to be taken against fake news. The UK has started a parliamentary probe into fake news, while Germany has drafted laws to require social networks and websites to remove fake news from their platforms.

“Fake news has become a problem in Singapore, not quite at the level that I have listed in other countries, but we see the phenomena,” said Mr Shanmugam. “You can predict the same sequence of actors — foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside of Singapore — using it to either destabilise our society, or not caring whether it destabilises but doing it to make a lot of money.”

He noted that the now-defunct The Real Singapore (TRS) website was shut down by the authorities, and its owners were jailed for sedition last year. The website owners made more than S$500,000 in advertising revenues, by publishing these “completely false articles”, Mr Shanmugam noted. Yang Kaiheng, one of the owners who went to jail, boasted about earning S$4,000 to S$5,000 a month, he added.

Adding that it was “impossible to list all the fake news” published by the website, Mr Shanmugam cited the example of an article falsely claiming that a Filipino family caused a dispute between the police and participants of a Thaipusam procession in 2015. There was no such complaint.

TRS co-founder Alex Tan had gone on to start The States Times Review website outside the Republic, and continued to publish “completely false news”, said Mr Shanmugam.

Last August, The States Times Review sought to portray the late president S R Nathan as an unpopular figure by claiming that there was a near-zero turnout for his funeral and kindergarten pupils were forced to attend to make up the numbers.

“Even when the articles are not totally fake, they are highly misleading, and the whole purpose is to purvey falsehoods and mislead the public,” said Mr Shanmugam.

He also singled out the All Singapore Stuff website for publishing a letter from an individual with the headline “S’pore new citizen feel cheated, now wants his old citizenship back” last November. An unrelated photograph of a Singaporean man was published alongside the article, and the man ended up being abused online.

Sam’s Early Learning Centre faced allegations of child neglect, after an anonymous post suggesting that the childcare centre made their children sleep on the floor and eat rotten fruit surfaced on Chinese social-media site WeChat in February.

While it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing that it is false, for example, Mr Shanmugam said that existing remedies are ineffective. “They were really looking at a time before the new age as it were. The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly,” he said.

In a separate parliamentary question, Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan asked whether the police will take action to protect their reputation when faced with false and malicious allegations. Mr Shanmugam reiterated that malicious falsehooods would be dealt with seriously, and that the time has come for the Government to move beyond rebutting to actively deal with allegations.

“We are looking at it, and something will be done,” he said. “So that the people who seek to profit from such conduct will actually feel the pain of it.” Additional reporting by Tan Weizhen

Past cases of falsehoods published online

Feb 2017: An anonymous post was widely circulated on social media and messaging platforms claiming that a childcare centre at River Valley Road made their enrolled children sleep on the floor and eat rotten fruits. The Early Childhood Development Agency’s investigations showed the childcare centre complied with regulatory requirements for safety, health and hygiene, and said that the photographs appeared to have been taken out of context.

Jan 2017: Bogus messages were circulated on social media and messaging platforms that supermarket chain FairPrice’s house brand jasmine rice was made from plastic. FairPrice has made a police report on the matter.

Nov 22, 2016: All Singapore Stuff published an article with the headline “S’pore new citizen feels cheated, now wants his old citizenship back”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of an unrelated man, whom Mr Shanmugam said was the subject of harassment after the article was published.

Nov 11, 2016: All Singapore Stuff published a hoax with the headline: “This just happened. The top floors of Punggol Waterway Terraces collapsed!”. Scores of police and civil defence officers were activated because of the hoax.

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