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Singapore eyes new laws as other countries grapple with foreign influence

SINGAPORE — As the Singapore Government considers making new laws to tackle foreign interference in its domestic affairs, other countries have been grappling for years with such instances of interference including election meddling and tactics designed to incite armed conflict.

Foreign actors have mounted disinformation campaigns and exploited sensitive issues to fracture social cohesion, for instance. In other cases, they sought to interfere by influencing those in politics through funding and donations.

Foreign actors have mounted disinformation campaigns and exploited sensitive issues to fracture social cohesion, for instance. In other cases, they sought to interfere by influencing those in politics through funding and donations.

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SINGAPORE — As the Singapore Government considers making new laws to tackle foreign interference in its domestic affairs, other countries have been grappling for years with such instances of interference including election meddling and tactics designed to incite armed conflict.

Foreign actors have mounted disinformation campaigns and exploited sensitive issues to fracture social cohesion, for instance. In other cases, they sought to interfere by influencing those in politics through funding and donations.

Here is a glimpse into high-profile cases of foreign interference in different countries in recent years:

UNITED STATES

Before and after the 2016 presidential election — which swept Mr Donald Trump to power — 126 million Americans received content in a highly sophisticated, Russia-backed operation aimed at influencing its outcome.

Social media accounts impersonated Americans or banded together around controversial issues, attracting scores of followers. American mainstream media even quoted posts spread by these fake accounts that splintered the population further.

They spread falsehoods on divisive issues, including gun control, immigration, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals.

Some, for example, claimed that if Mr Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton became president, the country would draw refugees and terror attacks.

Bots, or automated accounts, and digital advertisements spread disinformation as part of the campaign, which polarised and stirred suspicion against American institutions. Facebook advertising campaigns on divisive issues also targeted hotly contested states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

UNITED KINGDOM

In the UK, foreign-linked accounts banked on domestic grievances, including immigration, to sway public opinion against the British government and the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

These accounts and bots spread falsehoods online.

In one instance, researchers found that more than 150,000 Russia-based accounts posted about Brexit in the days leading up to the referendum, with the majority of the tweets nudging people to vote for the UK’s withdrawal from the union.

GERMANY

In 2016, a campaign spreading a fabricated story about Arab migrants raping a German girl roused anti-immigrant feelings. It also set off demonstrations and withered public confidence in the German government’s immigration and asylum policy.

FRANCE

Two days before the 2017 French presidential vote, then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron who is now president was the subject of a co-ordinated hacking attack. Tens of thousands of internal e-mail messages and documents from his presidential campaign, some believed to be false, were published online. In a matter of hours, the leak was tweeted tens of thousands of times, some of them from suspicious Twitter accounts that were likely bots.

UKRAINE

Russian media channels and social networks spread disinformation about the Ukrainian government, giving rise to armed conflict that claimed more than 10,000 lives and forced millions to seek refuge.

Russian TV coverage of alleged Ukrainian atrocities against Russian-speaking citizens spurred Russians to take up arms against Ukrainian government forces. Many of these reports were later established to be false.

AUSTRALIA

In 2017, New South Wales senator Sam Dastyari resigned from his post after he was found to have accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government.

He was also found to have contradicted his party’s position and defended China’s position on the South China Sea, a strategic waterway claimed by the Asian superpower and several of its regional neighbours.

The senator had ties with businessman Huang Xiangmo, who has links with the ruling communist party in China. Mr Huang had helped Mr Dastyari settle a A$5,000 (S$4,810) legal bill.

In June last year, Australia passed laws to prevent foreign interference in its internal affairs, criminalising threatening acts intended to interfere with its democratic processes.

It later also passed a bill barring donations of more than A$100 from foreign governments and state-owned enterprises to all political actors, including parties and candidates. 

NEW ZEALAND

Opposition politician Simon Bridges, who heads the New Zealand National Party, reportedly concealed a NZ$100,000 (S$91,450) donation to his party last year. Mr Zhang Yikun, a Chinese tycoon, was the donor.

Mr Bridges allegedly asked for the donation to be split into smaller sums and put under different names.

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