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To guard against election disinformation, new rules on paid internet political ads kick in from June 8

SINGAPORE — With a General Election (GE) slated to be held by April next year, the Elections Department (ELD) has stiffened the rules for political parties that use paid internet election advertising, requiring them to disclose, for example, the source of funds for such ads.

To guard against election disinformation, new rules on paid internet political ads kick in from June 8

In its media briefing on Monday, held via video conferencing platform Zoom, the Elections Department also announced changes to rules concerning other forms of political advertising, such as the printing of banners and posters.

SINGAPORE — With a General Election (GE) slated to be held by April next year, the Elections Department (ELD) has stiffened the rules for political parties that use paid internet election advertising, requiring them to disclose, for example, the source of funds for such ads.

The amended rules take effect on Monday (June 8) and come after reports of false information being used to sway voters in other countries’ recent polls, the ELD said.

The rule changes include more disclosure about whether the funds for such ads come from the candidate, his election agent, political party or any other person within 12 hours after the start of the campaign. 

The ELD revealed this in a media briefing held via video conferencing platform Zoom on the same day the amendments come into force.

It also announced changes to rules concerning other forms of political advertising, such as the printing of banners and posters.

Asked if the reason for these amendments is because the upcoming GE is expected to be held amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the ELD said the changes have been in the works for “quite some time” and are in response to some trends seen in overseas elections, such as the polls in Britain and Indonesia last year.

“I think we all acknowledge that Covid-19 will result in a lot more campaigning happening online, but the rules themselves were not designed because of Covid-19… Overall, we have seen increasing prevalence of internet election advertising, especially paid ones over the years, and we've seen some of the consequences of that,” said the ELD.

In Britain, one political party was alleged to have used misleading claims in close to 90 per cent of its Facebook advertisements. There were also reports of groups that had spent more than half a million pounds on online advertising but did not disclose to viewers the source of the ad funding and the campaign’s political affiliations, the ELD added.

In Indonesia, supporters of different political parties had allegedly created false accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation, said the ELD.

Singapore’s new measures will guard against such actions by requiring candidates and political parties to:

  • Declare more details to the returning officer

  • State who paid for the advertisement on the ad itself

  • Declare election expenses returns clearly for expenses on such online advertising

The ELD stressed that the rules affect only online election advertising that is paid for, such as a sponsored post on social media, a website banner or an advertorial. Only candidates, political parties or authorised third-party campaigners are allowed to pay for these ads.

The rules do not cover material that is not paid for, such as a social media post or a blog article, which anyone could publish.

WHAT CHANGED?

More disclosure of paid internet election advertising: Candidates must declare to the returning officer on whether paid internet election advertising is used and provide additional information such as the type of service used, the advertisement’s publisher, the period of the campaign, and whether money was received for the placement of the advertisement from the candidate, his election agent, his political party or any other person. Candidates must also clearly state the expenses incurred in their election expenses returns form.

Who paid for it: The advertisement must state that it was paid for by the candidate, political party or an authorised third-party campaigner. This can be by means of using words like “sponsored by” or “paid for by” on the ad.

Printed banners and posters: Candidates will be allowed to print 25 per cent more sheets of large banners or posters — those measuring up to 9m by 1.2m — than previously. The maximum size for small printed election advertising for single-ward constituencies has been increased to 1.75m by 1.2m. The symbol given to candidates by the returning officer — the political party’s logo, for example — must also be printed on the banner or poster.

Breach of banner and poster rules: Candidates will be required to bear the expenses to remove the election posters or banners that are in breach of the rules, such as if the poster is displayed at an MRT station, which is prohibited. Each removal of an election poster or banner will cost S$50, and will be considered as part of the candidates’ election expenses.

Small items not treated as election advertising: Previously, small and low-value items such as pens, diaries and key chains were exempted from advertising rules. The exemption now extends to umbrellas, as well as items worth less than S$10 and are smaller than 10cm on all sides. It must also not contain content that is false or negative towards other candidates.

HOW TO ENFORCE?

When asked how the ELD plans to enforce the rules, the department said it has been engaging social media platforms and tech companies.

“You would also have noticed that on many of these platforms themselves, they take election advertising and campaigning very seriously and they have put in place their own forms of guidelines as well as requirements in terms of disclosure,” said the department.

ELD added that if any breach arises from a candidate or political party, it will work with them to correct the error that could be due to an unfamiliarity of the new rules on their part.

It added: “If (the breach) is due to an unauthorised third-party campaigner, then at that point we will either inform them to take the ad down, or work with the necessary social media platforms (to do so).”

MOVE WILL PROMOTE ELECTION INTEGRITY: EXPERTS

Speaking to TODAY about the new rules for paid online ads, National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the new measures show that the ELD wants to avert the harms of misleading information, which could have an impact on undecided voters.

“I reckon ELD also wants to prevent interference from foreign sources,” he said.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan drew a distinction between the amendments and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which also aims to combat fake news.

Said Associate Professor Tan: “Pofma will deal with false political advertising but it is not engaged when a political ad, paid or unpaid, is factually accurate.

“The refined rules on paid internet election ads seek to provide transparency and accountability as to who is paying for an ad.

“It helps voters determine who is supporting a party and candidate through the paid ad and appreciate why the supporter is backing the party and candidate.

“It's about promoting election integrity.”

Related topics

General Election SGVotes2020 election campaign Election Department

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