Singapore reviews move to introduce legislation against fake news

Instead, the law ministry proposes the setting up of a government committee to assess the impact of "online falsehoods" in the country and how it should respond.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore is considering plans to set up a special ministerial committee to assess the impact of "online falsehoods" and recommend how it should respond, potentially backtracking on a previous proposal to introduce legislation.

The country's Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Law released a "green paper" detailing the need to establish a "select committee", comprising several MPs. This would be presented in parliament on January 10, which then would decide on whether one should be created to "study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods" and offer recommendations on how the country should respond.

Select committees are seldom formed in Singapore, where they are described as "ad hoc" and serve to review details of bills that affect the general population, such as sales tax and the advance medical directive bill. The committee can call for witnesses and request documents and records as well as hold public or closed-door hearings. When it has completed its task, its findings including recommendations on course of action will be reported to parliament.

The move to set up a select committee to review the impact of fake news indicated a change in approach from an earlier proposal to introduce new regulations.

Describing the need for legislative action as a "no-brainer", Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam last June said he was targeting to have laws in place this year to combat fake news. He had cited a poll the government commissioned that revealed 91 percent of Singaporeans supported the need for stronger laws to deal with fake news.

Shanmugam noted that the government played a key role in dealing with misinformation that impacted society, adding that countries such as Germany, the UK, and Israel also were assessing laws to instruct social networks to remove unlawful content including fake news.

In its green paper, the Singapore government pointed to digital technologies that had been "seriously abused" to distribute false information and damage societies. Social bots, for instance, had been used to create fake social media accounts and spread spam and online falsehoods. "By sheer volume, they can create a false impression of public support for, or relevance to, a particular story or movement," it said.

It added that online fake news also could spread through search engines, e-mail chains, direct links to websites, and instant messaging. The reported cited a University of Oxford study that found, during the 2016 US Presidential Election, 40 percent of web traffic containing false and "hyper-biased" news came through technologies other than social media.

The report noted that while technology companies such as Google and Facebook had taken steps to address the issue, online falsehoods continued to be a problem.

The government added that Singapore was a vulnerable target due to the country's highly diverse racial and religious population. "Online falsehoods pose real and serious challenges. The incidents around the world demonstrate the serious nature of the issues," it said. "Singapore should not wait for an incident to occur. We have to learn from the experiences of other countries what the risks are and what can be done about them."

It noted that the general public would be able to submit feedback to the select committee.

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