15 May 2019

In May 2019, Singapore joined a growing list of countries that have passed a law governing the growing problem of fake news. The law aims to eliminate deliberate ‘online falsehoods’ – the preferred term for fake news in Singapore. Unsurprisingly, opposition parties and critics of the government have labelled the law as being excessive. However, when societies are being ripped apart because of the spread of fake news, violent and extremist content, it feels like such laws are a desperate requirement in a time of desperate need.

The new law, titled ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)’, has been criticised for a host of reasons, the most widely discussed being the clause that grants sweeping power to the executive (ministers of the government) to decide what is and what is not a deliberate falsehood. Additionally, ministers have the power of granting exceptions. This has raised concerns regarding the government’s power to silence dissent and increase curbs on the freedom of expression in Singapore.

However, amidst all the criticism, the law is at least detailed and clear on implementation. The law defines the conditions under which someone will be penalised. For there to be criminal liability, the online post must be verifiably false, must cause public harm and the person sharing the post must know that it is both false and harmful. Both the minister for law and minister for education in Singapore also spent a great deal of time in explaining how the law works, and have assured citizens and academicians not to fear the law. The law even has a provision of displaying corrections alongside false posts and failure to comply could result in fines of up to S$1 million.

It is not a coincidence that an increasing number of countries have either already passed or are in the process of drafting and passing similar laws. Much of this action is the result of social media companies failing to shoulder responsibilities on the spread of false and harmful content on their platforms. Even though countries around the world had been deliberating on how to curb the speed and spread of false content since 2014, it was the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2017 that blew the pin resulting in hearings where social media companies promised to do more to remove such content.

Unfortunately, the progress from these platforms was slow and inefficient. For example, when WhatsApp was criticised by the Indian government and warned of action if it did not do anything to arrest the spread of false news, the company responded by displaying a “forwarded” tag on any posts that were forwarded by users, and limiting the number of such forwards to five. This was simply a stop-gap measure intended to wash its hands off of any real change, laying the onus on users to figure out the authenticity of any forwards.

Germany was one of the first countries to pass a law in 2017, trying to control the spread of harmful content. Known in Germany as NetzDG, the law imposed fines of up to S$75 million on tech companies failing to remove social media posts containing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. The law came into effect on Jan 1, 2018 and immediately showed results amidst criticisms. Critics had warned that law would impact free speech, and there were reports of tweets and posts taken down simply because they were critical of the police. However, the law also forced social media companies to hire more people to their content moderation teams, ramping up efforts to control the spread of online hatred.

Malaysia, Australia, France and the European Union have passed similar laws in the last year, attempting to limit the spread of false and harmful content. The laws faced similar criticisms, of being excessive, overreaching and having the possibility of harming free speech. At the same time, these laws have clearly had an effect on the content removal speed and volume. Data by companies show speedier removal of false content on social media platforms since the passing of these laws.

In recent times, when fake news has been proven to getting people killed, influence elections and destroy communities, it is imperative that countries counter the threat by passing strong laws.

Are these laws perfect? Certainly not, but there rarely is a perfect solution to begin with. In order to find a solution that works really well, it is perhaps important that we start with something.