Measures targeting online falsehoods aim to ‘remedy’ impact, ‘not punish wrongdoers’: Edwin Tong

Measures targeting online falsehoods aim to ‘remedy’ impact, ‘not punish wrongdoers’: Edwin Tong

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addressed criticism of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in a parliamentary speech on May 7, 2019, saying while there is nothing wrong with questioning whether the powers given to the Government could be abused, those levelling the criticism should first read the proposed laws in detail.

SINGAPORE: A proposed law aimed at fighting deliberate online falsehoods will provide the Government with various tools to deal with the matter, but these will serve to “remedy the impact of falsehoods primarily and not punish wrongdoers”.  

This is according to Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong, who spoke in Parliament on Tuesday (May 7) during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

Under the proposed legislation, a minister has the power to declare that an article contains falsehoods, and issue a direction for a correction to be carried or for the falsehood to be taken down. This direction can be challenged in court. 

READ: Deliberate online falsehoods Bill: More details revealed on process to challenge decisions

“Just because one might receive a direction does not mean that that person has done something illegal,” Mr Tong said, noting that two conditions must be satisfied before directions can be issued. 

These are that the false statement of fact must be communicated in Singapore, and that it is in the public interest to issue a direction. 

He added that the Bill closely reflects suggestions put forth by a Select Committee, which had unanimously recommended that “the Government have the powers to swiftly disrupt online falsehoods”. 

As such, the Bill provides a “toolbox of Government powers" to address the impact of specific individual falsehoods and source of falsehoods, as well as “regulatory oversight of Internet intermediaries” to ensure they take effective measures to prevent and combat the problems.

TOOLS TARGETING FALSEHOODS DESIGNED FOR ONLINE PLATFORMS

Elaborating on the various tools, Mr Tong stressed that a large majority is “designed for platforms, not individual publishers”. 

These tools provide access to and increase the visibility of corrections; disrupt fake accounts that amplify falsehoods; discredit the online sources of falsehoods; and cut off the financial incentives of online sources of falsehoods.

READ: New law deals specifically with online falsehoods, ‘preferable’ over amending existing ones: Shanmugam

The first is a correction regime – the primary tool that the Government intends to use, said Mr Tong. 

“The falsehood stays up. People will then have access to both the falsehood and the correction, and can decide for themselves. In such a case, directions add to and not remove the discourse,” he said.

“The corrections powers will require a person to ‘tag’ a falsehood with a correction or amplify a correction generally. These powers are needed because of the difficulty of getting corrections to overcome the reach of falsehoods,” he added.

There are two forms of corrections, according to Mr Tong, citing research that showed corrections tend to be effective when they provide an explanation of the facts and give a prior warning about the falsehood to come. 

The first will be a targeted correction, which must be made accessible to viewers of the falsehood. 

The second is a general correction, which must be generally amplified on certain platforms, such as news outlets and Internet intermediaries, even if these platforms are not carrying the falsehood. 

Besides corrections powers, the Bill also provides for disabling of access to falsehoods, he said. 

“There can be a direction to cease communication of the falsehood to viewers in Singapore,” added Mr Tong.

“There can be a further order to require that a correction be communicated to those who have viewed the falsehood.” 

The Bill requires these directions to be published in the Government Gazette, he said. 

As to who may receive the directions, Mr Tong said it will “often not make sense to issue directions to every person that shares a falsehood”. 

READ: In quotes - Parliament discusses the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill

To curb dissemination, the most effective way is to issue directions to “key nodes of dissemination”. 

These will mainly be the Internet intermediaries, which play a crucial role in the spread of online falsehoods, he said. 

Directions could, in some situations, be issued to those with large followings, added Mr Tong. 

BILL INCLUDES BOTH SPEED AND DUE PROCESS

In his speech, Mr Tong also touched on how the Bill seeks to “incorporates both speed and due process”. 

This reflects the recommendations of the Select Committee, which stressed on the need to have adequate safeguards to ensure due process and the proper exercise of power, as well as achieve the objective of “breaking virality by being effective in a matter of hours”. 

Said Mr Tong: “The minister will first issue the direction. An appeal can then be brought to the High Court to set aside the direction.

“This, in our view, is the best way to be effective, while ensuring adequate judicial oversight.” 

He added: “The Executive weighs the competing interests and acts decisively to protect society. The Court will have the final say over whether the content in question is false.” 

He mentioned how during the Select Committee process, some representatives preferred a Court order to an executive direction. 

However, Mr Tong said that “even an expedited court process may not be fast enough to deal with the virality”. 

“Falsehoods can reach many with great speed, and lead to serious consequences just as quickly,” he said. “The essence of the remedies … have to be able to address and counter the quick, wide and deep spread of falsehoods.”

Source: CNA/sk(gs)

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