Shanmugam hammers away at fake news

Apr 03, 2017 06.00PM |

by Suhaile Md

FAKE news has real consequences.

Just ask Mr Prakash Hetamsaria. The website All Singapore Stuff (ASS) used a screenshot of an old video footage which had his face and name plastered on their fake article. It didn’t ask him for permission, which was bad enough. But the accompanying article was about a new Singaporean who wanted his old citizenship back because he was dissatisfied with Singapore. As one would expect in the wild frontier of the internet, Mr Hetamsaria, who is Singaporean, became the subject of much racist and xenophobic abuse.

This was just one example that Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam cited in parliament earlier today (Apr 3). ASS was cited once more for its false claim that the rooftop of Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed. The police and civil defence force had even been deployed to investigate the issue then.

The Ministry of Law provided four examples of egregious forms of fake news by States Times Review, including the time where it falsely claimed that no one turned up for former President S R Nathan’s funeral and that kindergarteners were forced to attend it. See the list here.The Real Singapore (TRS), which was closed by the Media Development Authority in May 2015 for posting fabricated articles that were against national harmony, was mentioned twice. Once for falsely claiming that a commotion between the police and Thaipusam participants was sparked by a complaint from a Filipino family. These are just two examples, it’s “impossible to list all the fake news they published”, said the Ministry.

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Besides websites, the ministry also picked up online hoaxes which had gone viral, such as the fake account of the childcare centre that supposedly neglected and abused the children in its care.

Such fake news “unreasonably, unfairly damaged” the reputations of the victims, said Mr K Shanmugam. Often they are motivated by money. The more an article travels online, the more advertising revenue is generated. TRS, for example, made over $500,000 before it shut down.

But there’s another nefarious purpose to fake news. It’s a “powerful tool to interfere in the domestic politics” and affairs of another country, said Mr K Shanmugam. He did not say if there was such external influence here but cited the example of last year’s presidential elections in the United States which were dogged by suggestions of “serious attempts” to interfere in US elections. Democratic challenger Mrs Hilary Clinton was, in one instance, falsely accused of selling weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Other misinformation that falsely linked her to a pedophile ring based in a restaurant also floated around, prompting a gunman to open fire at the restaurant.

There are “suggestions that many fake news stories” during the US elections were created by teenagers in Macedonia, as a way of making money, but “countries may well be involved as well”, said the Minister.

Given the ease and connectivity of social media, fake news can spread “easily, speedily, widely”.  Countries like the US and Germany are looking into drafting laws to stem the dangerous spread of misinformation. One suggestion has been to compel social media platforms like Facebook to be responsible for stemming the tide. Germany is considering fines as high as €50 million (S$74.5 million) for social media platforms if they refuse to remove illegal content or give users the choice to complain about hate speech.

The situation in Singapore is “not quite at the level” where there have been attempts to influence a referendum was the case with Brexit in the United Kingdom. Still it’s easy to predict that the “same sequence of actors” and actions can be used to sway domestic affairs here, he said.

As for what constituted fake news, he said they aren’t “trivial factual inaccuracies, but falsehoods that can cause real harm”. He added that it must be assumed that “fake news can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign countries..”

In January this year, the G had served notice that it would look at how to tackle fake news. This came at the back of the Attorney General’s Chamber’s (AGC) and Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) failed attempt, at the Court of Appeal, to use the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) against a doctor and The Online Citizen (TOC) website.

Section 15 of POHA allows victims of false allegations to get a court order to prevent publication of said allegations, unless it shed light on the truth.

TOC had published a statement from the doctor about alleged patent infringement by Mindef. Mindef’s refutation was later published on TOC but the AGC wanted TOC to amend the story and indicate that the doctor’s allegations were false. The appellate court ruled that the G does not come under the “persons” in section 15 of POHA, and so the court could not prevent TOC or the doctor from publishing.

About a week later, the Law Ministry said that it did not “intend to amend POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) to protect itself from harassment” but that the G still “needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information”.

Mr K Shanmugam, who was responding to queries from two MPs, said that existing laws, like the Telecommunications Act which makes it an offence to spread messages that are known to be false, are “ineffective now”. It was written before the “new age (of communications) as it were”. It was last invoked in March last year to charge a culprit for a bomb hoax.

So, purveyors of fake news have been forewarned. Mr K Shanmugam gave no indication of what form the strictures will take, whether in terms of legislation or regulation. His ministry is currently reviewing the issue and will announce its position “once we have completed our review,” added Mr K Shanmugam. It’s a pity that no MP engaged him on the issue, which he took pains to stress was a “serious threat”. They didn’t even ask him when the review would be completed. 

Want to know more about the issue? Read: Can we talk about what to do with fake news here?

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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