Advertisers running campaigns on social issues, elections, and politics on Facebook in Singapore now will have to confirm their identity and location, and reveal who is responsible for the ads. The social media giant says the move is part of efforts to stem the spread of "misinformation" and help block foreign interference in local elections.
Its announcement on Wednesday came amid calls from Singapore's Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam for regulations to deal with "hostile information campaigns".
Speaking also on Wednesday at the RSIS Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures, Shanmugam said: "If you look at what powers would be necessary to counter foreign interference, which includes hostile information campaigns, it will have to give the government powers to make targeted, surgical interventions, to investigate and respond expeditiously to [such campaigns].
"[This] also means getting the information so that we are able to investigate the provenance of content to see whether to what extent it is foreign interference, and to have the appropriate response," the minister said.
He noted that the internet had enabled hostile information campaigns to be made cheap, easy, and effective. In addition, there was a growing market that facilitated such activities, he said, pointing to how a million Instagram "likes" could be purchased at just $18 and 100 Twitter followers, Likes, or retweets could be bought at $0.34 while 100 YouTube subscribers were available at $0.66.
He added that some of such initiatives were specifically targeted at influencing the outcome of elections or national referendums. A foreign troll during the 2016 presidential elections in the US, for example, was believed to have conducted a misinformation campaign using 50,000 bot accounts, more than 3,800 Twitter accounts, and almost 500 fake Facebook accounts. He noted that Facebook's own estimates put the number of people who might have received such content between 2015 and 2017 to be some 126 million.
On how this challenge should be addressed, Shanmugam noted that while some technology vendors had suggested self-regulation, he questioned whether this was adequate in the absence of legislation. "I think the clear answer is, no," he said.
The Singapore minister explained: "Part of the issue is that their business model militates against proper self-regulation. The more users, the more content there is on their platforms, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, the more their profits." He noted that attempts to remove fake users and accounts, as well as investigate coordinated inauthentic behaviour were all costly.
"The tech companies are in a position of conflict where their business interests often conflict with what needs to be done in the broader society's interests," he said. Regulations, he noted, would resolve conflicts of interest in specific industries and would not be different in terns of principle to a tech company's own rules.
He said the Singapore government was keen to work with tech companies to identify ways to resolve the issue, noting that Facebook's co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in March said regulation was necessary and that it was beyond tech companies. "But he also says there needs to be global standards agreed to by all the countries for such legislation," he added.
In its statement, Facebook said it unveiled a global rollout of its ad transparency tools in June that enabled advertisers in some countries to: Be authorised, place "paid for by" disclaimers on their ads, and submit their ads in its Ad Library for seven years. This has now been extended to include Singapore with Facebook saying it would "begin [to] proactively" enforce its policy on ads about social issues, elections, and politics.
The city-state was expected to hold its general elections within the next year.
Advertisers themselves, or a page they run, or their organisation could appear in the "Paid for by" disclaimer, and would have to provide additional information such as a phone number, email, and website if they chose to use their organisation or Page Name, according to Facebook. "These requirements hold advertisers accountable for the ads they run on Facebook and Instagram," it said.
The authorisation process also was required for advertisers looking to run ads related to specific social issues, such as those about civil and social rights, immigration, crime, political values, and governance. Facebook noted that these social issues were identified based on external consultation and its internal research, "which found that Singaporeans discuss, debate or advocate for or against these issues" on the social media platform.
It said the authorisation process could take a few weeks to complete.
The company added that authorised advertisers would have their ads placed in its Ad Library for seven years, including their disclaimer information. This library would provide information about the ad such as its range of impressions and spend, and demographic information about the people who saw the ad such as age, gender, and location.
In addition, access to the API (application programming interface) for its Ad Library would be offered to researchers, academics, journalists, and the public to study political advertising.
"The results on API queries in Singapore will now be more robust as advertisers are required to authorise and add disclaimers," Facebook said. "In addition, we will introduce the Ad Library Report within the next few weeks, which provides people who aren't as technical with similar information about ads related to social issues, elections or politics."
As expected, the Singapore government has voted to pass the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill despite strong calls from industry observers and global technology companies to reassess the legislation, which they say gives the government far-reaching powers over online communication.
Government should cement its pledge not to use the law to stifle free speech by amending key components in the draft bill, such as including a clause to clearly state the act is not targeted at opinions and parody and creating an independent council to monitor online falsehoods, urge Singapore's Nominated Members of Parliament.
Twitter, Google, and Facebook faced a parliamentary committee set up to examine the impact of "deliberate online falsehoods"--with Facebook, specifically, grilled over the Cambridge Analytica breach.
Government's proposed bill to combat online falsehoods gives the administration "full discretion" on whether a piece of content is deemed true or false and this level of "overreach" poses significant risks to freedom of expression, cautions an industry group representing major internet and technology companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
"Inauthentic" behavior was linked to entities in Iran, Russia, Macedonia, and Kosovo.