Law may be reviewed to counter fake news

Law may be reviewed to counter fake news
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
PHOTO: TNP file photo

As the scourge of fake news takes hold across the globe, Singapore is seriously considering how to deal with it.

Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday: "They can cause harm to Singaporeans, alarm to the public, emergency resources... to be diverted, and the reputation of businesses (and) people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged."

He mentioned misleading stories that were published ahead of Britain's Brexit referendum to fuel xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In the US, fake news was circulated on social media during the presidential election, potentially swaying some voters.

Mr Shanmugam also cited websites, such as the defunct The Real Singapore, States Times Review and All Singapore Stuff, as having published fake news about Singapore.

He stressed that the concern is with "falsehoods that can cause real harm" and not "trivial factual inaccuracies".

While the impact of fake news here has not been as significant, he said our current law is limited in dealing with fake news, which can be used by foreign governments as a weapon to destabilise a country.

For example, while it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing it is false, "these remedies are ineffective" nowadays, he said.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. And so we need to do more."

Countries such as the US, Britain and Germany are putting in more measures to deal with outlets that spread falsehoods, he said.

For example, Germany is considering a draft law to require social networks such as Facebook to remove fake news amounting to illegal content from their platforms, or risk fines of up to 50 million euros (S$74.3m).

Britain has also reportedly launched a parliamentary probe into the issue, calling fake news a threat to democracy.

Experts agreed that more needs to be done to prevent the spread of fake news here.

Criminal lawyer Ravinderpal Singh of Kalco Law told The New Paper: "There should be laws to deter fake news from being posted.

"People should also be more conscientious in verifying what they post or share online."

Social media consultant Ryan Lim, founding partner of QED Consulting, said that while the Government needs to strengthen laws to combat fake news, there could be other options.

"Perhaps they could learn from practices of commercial companies, who battle perception all the time," he said, citing Samsung's use of advertising, public relations management and even grassroots movements to rebuild its reputation ahead of its S8 mobile phone launch after the Note 7 debacle.

"There could be other ways to counteract what spreads online, to get people to stop believing these falsehoods."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said it boiled down to imparting wisdom, discernment, and a sense of social and moral responsibility, so that people can be inoculated against susceptibility to fake news.

He said: "Law and enforcement is part of the equation.

"I would say that it is necessary, but some may see this as an attempt by or a means to give the powers that be a weapon to stifle free speech or opposing views."

This article was first published on April 4, 2017.
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