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Multi-prong approach needed to combat misinformation, say experts and MPs

SINGAPORE — Experts and Members of Parliament (MPs) on Friday (Jan 5) lauded the Government’s proposal to convene a Select Committee to study the spread of deliberate online falsehoods, with at least one suggesting the move could pave the way for dedicated legislation to deal with the scourge.

Commuters using their mobile devices inside the cabin of the Circle Line MRT. TODAY file photo

Commuters using their mobile devices inside the cabin of the Circle Line MRT. TODAY file photo

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SINGAPORE — Experts and Members of Parliament (MPs) on Friday (Jan 5) lauded the Government’s proposal to convene a Select Committee to study the spread of deliberate online falsehoods, with at least one suggesting the move could pave the way for dedicated legislation to deal with the scourge.

But laws are not the panacea, they reiterated, as they stressed the need for different stakeholders to work together, as well as raise public awareness.

Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan said: “There may be the need to beef up the powers and penalties in our existing laws such as the Sedition Act and the Penal Code. But judging from the Green Paper and the plans to have a Select Committee, it would appear that the Government is leaning towards having a dedicated legislation to deal with the threat posed by fake news.”

One possible new law, said Assoc Prof Tan, is to give the authorities more teeth in directing telecommunication firms and technology companies to thwart the deliberate spread of misinformation online.

“Because a well-coordinated and well-timed campaign at propagating deliberate falsehoods often leverages on digital technology, there will be the need for a multi-stakeholder approach if efforts to thwart and repel are to have a positive impact,” said the former Nominated Member of Parliament.

Tech companies, for example, have been under pressure by governments worldwide to stamp out the scourge. Facebook, Google and Twitter, for instance, were grilled by the United States’ Congress in October last year on their roles in Russia’s alleged attempt to influence the US presidential election in 2016.

Recommendations mooted by the proposed Select Committee must also take into account how disinformation campaigns often stem from anonymous sources outside the target country, and are facilitated by automated means — which means they remain relatively unaffected by jurisdiction-specific laws, said Mr Benjamin Ang, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Centre of Excellence for National Security.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said legislation must be considered as part of a larger set of solutions to tackle the issue, which should also include more proactive measures, such as raising awareness to discern misinformation from facts.

The Select Committee should also clarify that it is not targeting people who are uninformed or honestly hold a different position from the Government on certain issues, he said. “Singaporeans need to feel assured that they are not curtailed in what they say, even if it may be critical of the Government or some of its policies,” said Mr Zaqy, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information.

Assoc Prof Tan reiterated that laws are “generally reactive in nature”. “They kick in after the fact,” he pointed out. “The need for defensive measures and preemptive strikes to deal with this evolving threat could be high on the agenda of the authorities.”

Professor Lim Sun Sun, who heads the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Department, felt that the consultative nature of a Select Committee would ensure that the proposed measures are “reflective of public sentiments”. “Given the space to consult widely, chances of the proposed legislation, if any, having a chilling effect (on free speech), will be minimised,” said Prof Lim.

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