Debate is still swirling around the Singapore government’s proposed fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – even more so this week as parliament sits down for a second reading for the bill.

Since it was introduced last month (1 April), the government has consistently defended the bill against strong criticism on several fronts. Human rights advocates, journalist organisations and media experts have condemned the bill for being too vague, saying that it would severely restrict freedom of the press in Singapore and have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

Academics, activists, and civil societies have voiced strong concerns over the broad powers that the bill grants to individual ministers to declare what is truth and what is false. Many are also disturbed over the provisions of the bill which include an exemption clause which allows ministers to exempt any people or agency from the effects of the bill. Moreover, there is concern that the fact that while the government assures the public that the law will not be used on opinions, parody or satire, the is a glaring lack of specificity in the bill to provide support to those assurances.

Insufficient existing laws

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has gone all out in to counter criticism of the bill. Responding to questions as to why a new law was necessary ‘fake news’ when Singapore already has several laws in place that deals with the same issue, Mr Shanmugam said that the new legislation comes with ‘narrower set of power than under existing legislation’ which focused on online falsehoods with ‘remedies that are calibrated and provided greater judivial oversight on Executive Action’.

Mr Shanmugam added that the law was “Designed specifically for the Internet rather than rely on existing legislation, and to deal specifically with online falsehoods rather than the broader areas that are covered under the Broadcasting Act.”

He continued to say that while the Broadcasting Act was essential to achieving the objective of the time, POFMA on the other hand “was fashioned to deal specifically with falsehoods that can be spread online with incredible speed, in a targeted manner, with speed, with proportionality and with the courts given greater powers.”

This is a similar reasoning that was used by Malaysia’s former Najib Razak-led Barisan National (BN) government when they passed their own Anti-Fake News Act back in 2018. At the time, Minister from the Prime Minister’s Department Azlina Othman said that Malaysia’s exsiting Penal Code, Printing Presses and Pupblicatons Act 1984 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 are insufficient when it comes to dealing with the type of ‘complex offences in line with the latest technological developments’.

The Malaysian Anti-Fake News Act has since been repealed by the newly installed Pakatan Harapan government only 3 months after they had been elected in.

Preserving unity and harmony

Another similar justification between the Razak administration and the current PAP government in Singapore over the need of fake news laws is to protect the harmony and unity of each country.

Specifically, Mr Shanmugam has said in his speech in parliament on (7 May), “Public discourse can only take place when there is free and responsible speech. The pre-requisites for national conversations are – a common vocabulary, an underpinning of facts, and that provides a platform for accommodation and compromise amongst the diverse voices in society.”

“A critical piece of infrastructure in these conversations is fact – the infrastructure of fact. Like public infrastructure, society depends on it. It provides society with a shared reality. This is necessary so that we can have diversity without conflict, and public participation while still getting decisions made.”

In Malaysia, Ms Othman has said of the need for the law, “Like it or not, fake news has a negative impact on the security and stability of a country.” Fake news, she added, could lead to emotional distress and financial losses to those affected.

“The unity built over the years in the country could be undermined by it,” she said, adding that the Bill aimed to send the message that the Government would not compromise on public order and security.

Protecting from foreign interference

Touching specifically on the effect of fake news on politics, Najib himself said in his opening speech at the Putrajaya Forum 2018, “The future of our country is for Malaysian people to decide, and they should do so on the basis of facts, not fake news of lies, propaganda, false promises and illusions.”

He added that the government would not compromise Malaysia’s sovereignty by allowing other countries or individuals to dictate the direction of the country, hence the need for this law.

In a similar vein, Mr Shanmugam noted that falsehoods have been weaponised. He said, “The attack using falsehoods on social media comes from several directions, several sources – foreign countries using information warfare; profit-driven actors; deliberate actors for political ends; people with prejudices, seeking to harm other group”

He continued by saying Singapore is a ‘specific and vulnerable’ target for foreign powers given its military superiority in the region and that militarily weaker countries will attempt to weaken Singapore from the inside, “create deep internal divisions, keep us in a permanent state of internal dissession”

He also gave the example of how fake news campaigns by foreign powers significantly affected the result of Britain’s Leave EU Referendum, saying “These falsehoods were used to create an alternate reality”.

Regulating tech companies

Additionally, Mr Shanmugam said that tech companies could not be expected to regulate themselves – another reason Singapore needs POFMA. Touching on fake accounts, trolls and bots, Mr Shanmugam said “Fake social media accounts are manufactured to manipulate. Some of them cultivate persuasive online personas to gain legions of followers, both real and fake. (They are) used as fictitious leaders of public opinion, using falsehoods to sway minds, create impressions of public sentiment. Bots are used to artificially amplify falsehoods.”

He added, “We have noticed spikes in activity from inauthentic accounts. When we have discussions on various issues of public concern…Such activity creates alternate realities, manipulates perception, creates impression that there are many voices, shouts down other viewpoints through fake accounts, shifts public opinion, erodes trust and undermines institutions.”

He continued that tech companies provide platforms on which falsehoods can spread but while they (tech companies) have held themselves out as making the world the better place, the evidence shows that they cannot be relied upon to self-regulate.

The Minister cited the incident in Sri Lanka where online rumours on Facebook led to ethnic violence, burning of mosques, attacks and eventually a state of emergency being declared.

He said, “Facebook users lodged thousands of complaints over hate speech. Facebook did nothing.”