Singapore questions social media giants over 'online falsehoods'

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.

A Singapore parliamentary committee on Thursday spent hours questioning representatives from social media and tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, over their policies and role in managing "deliberate online falsehoods".

Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy Simon Milner, specifically, faced what he himself described as a "tough Q&A" with Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

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Asked why Facebook users were not informed earlier about the Cambridge Analytica breach, Milner acknowledged it was a wrong call and pointed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's admission that the company had made mistakes. He added that the social media should have notified users and taken further steps to ensure the data was deleted.

Shanmugam said Facebook's demeanour was similar to how train tickets previously were sold, where all liabilities would be removed on the part of the train operator, reported local broadcaster Channel NewsAsia. Such behaviour, he said, underscored the need for regulations to ensure companies in a dominant position could not deny all liabilities.

The minister also asked if the social platform would remove falsehood, to which Milner noted that Facebook did not have a policy stating that everything posted on the site was "true, verified, and accurate".

The company also did not put itself in a position of deciding what was true, he added, but noted that it would respect a court order instructing a piece of content to be removed.

On whether legislation was needed to deal with "deliberate online falsehoods", Milner said this would not be a "silver bullet" and highlighted the need to discuss where and how regulations should apply, and to what they applied.

Google's representative and Asia-Pacific News Lab lead, Irene Jay Liu, noted that inaccurate content on its search and news platforms would not result in their removal because the company did not host the content. It also would not be able to correct the content since another organisation owned it.

Asked if YouTube would voluntarily remove inaccurate video content or wait to be legally instructed to do so, Liu said Google would review all legal requests for takedown of such material. She was, however, unable to ascertain if this meant a valid legal request was required and that the company would not voluntarily remove such videos.

Twitter's representative and Asia-Pacific director of public policy, Kathleen Reen, noted in a written submission that the microblogging platform "care deeply about deliberate online falsehoods and their potentially harmful effect on civic and political discourse".

She said the company's "open and real-time nature" was "a powerful antidote" to combat the spread of false information, adding that this was critical as Twitter would not be able to determine if every single Tweet was truthful.

Reen said: "No single company, governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth. Instead, we see journalists, experts, and engaged citizens Tweeting side-by-side to affirm, correct, and challenge public discourse in seconds."

Facebook, Twitter, and Google were part of several organisations scheduled to face the parliamentary committee, set up by the Singapore government to examine the impact of online falsehoods and how these should be managed. Comprising 10 members of parliament, including the law minister, the committee had scheduled public hearings to be held this month, during which some 70 individuals and organisations had been invited to "provide oral evidence".

"Deliberate online falsehoods is a serious global problem, which many countries, including Singapore, have to grapple with," said the committee's chairman and Singapore's deputy speaker of parliament, Charles Chong. "It is a complex problem, affecting us in many different ways."

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