Singapore orders Facebook page to be tagged as online falsehoods repeat offender

Singapore government has ordered the Facebook page operated by States Times Review to be tagged a "Declared Online Location" under the country's online falsehoods law, which requires readers to be warned that the page has "a history of communicating falsehoods".
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore has issued a directive for a Facebook page to be tagged a "Declared Online Location" (DOL) under the country's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which requires a notice to be carried on the page stating it has "a history of communicating falsehoods". The move comes after the author of the Facebook page, operated by the States Times Review, refuses to comply with any POFMA directive issued in previous weeks. 

Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) said in a statement Saturday the DOL order would come into effective tomorrow, on February 16. 

ZDNet understands this means the owner of the Facebook page, the States Times Review, will have to comply with the directive by then and carry a notice stating it has been labelled a DOL. Facebook, while the operator of the social media platform, is not targeted in this particular directive order.

As at press time, the States Times Review page on Facebook has yet to comply with the DOL notice.

ZDNet has approached Facebook for comments about the directive and will update this article when the company responds. 

According to MCI, the DOL declaration would make it an offence for the owner of the Facebook page, Alex Tan, to benefit from operating it. The directive also would prohibit the "provision of financial support to it for the purpose of supporting, helping, or promoting" the communication of the online falsehoods. 

The ministry alleged that Tan had repeatedly stated numerous falsehoods, including three that were the subject of POFMA directives issued between November last year and February 2020. None of these were complied with. 

In the latest one, which was served on Friday, the POFMA Office ordered corrections to be made on the States Times Review Facebook page regarding a February 13 post about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Singapore. It also issued a Targeted Correction Direction to Facebook, which would have to publish a correction notice on the page that included a link to a POFMA page listing the correct statements. 

According to MCI, amongst a list of falsehoods the States Times Review was deemed to have made included stating the Singapore government was unable to trace the source of infection for any patients infected with with virus, that the government was the only nation instructing the public not to wear a mask, and that seven countries had banned travel to the city-state. 

The ministry said: "The States Times Review Facebook page has spread falsehoods regarding the COVID-19 virus situation in Singapore..[and] is linked to other websites that are also operated by Alex Tan, which derive monetary benefits from these falsehoods at the expense of Singaporeans and our society."

ZDNet approached the ministry for comments, including clarification on what it deems to be monetary benefits gained from the online falsehoods. An MCI spokesperson did not respond directly to these questions, but replied with this statement: "As a DOL, the States Times Review page [on Facebook] is required to carry a notification to readers that it has a history of communicating falsehoods. 

"Recalcitrant purveyors of falsehoods should not receive help or support to spread falsehoods, nor should they benefit from doing so. This includes profiting from any paid content [such as] advertisements, which may appear on a DOL. We are working closely with prescribed digital advertising intermediaries in this regard," the MCI spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the States Times Review has indicated no plans to abide by any POFMA directive. On its Facebook page, it said: "The POFMA order was issued to quell criticisms against [the ruling political party's] ministers, who are more concerned with their own political reputation than fixing the Wuhan virus crisis. POFMA is only applicable in the Singapore dictatorship, no other country recognises the censorship's legitimacy.

"As a political exile, the editor of States Times Review will never comply with any of the POFMA order," it said. 

Facebook had complied with previous POFMA correction directives served directly to the social media platform, including a November 2019 order issued against the States Times Review page.

The Singapore legislation was passed in May, following a brief public debate, and kicked in on  October 2 with details on how appeals against directives could be made. The bill had passed amidst strong criticism that it gave the government far-reaching powers over online communication and would be used to stifle free speech as well as quell political opponents.

Under the POFMA, offenders could face up to three or five years' imprisonment, a SG$30,000 or SG$50,000 fine, or both. If bots or inauthentic accounts were used to amplify falsehoods, the potential penalties that could be applied would be doubled. Offending internet intermediaries, meanwhile, could face up to SG$1 million in fines, and also would receive a daily SG$100,000 fine for each day they continued to breach the Act after conviction.


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