SINGAPORE: A UK academic drew a riposte from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Thursday (Mar 15) when he said legislation should be the "very last resort" against social media platforms, in the event of disinformation campaigns.
In a written submission, defence and disinformation analyst Ben Nimmo told the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods that “as far as possible, information, even false information, should remain outside the purview of government”.
“This is essential for the health of democracy,” he said. Later, speaking at a public hearing via video conference, Mr Nimmo elaborated: “I am very wary of any legislative proposal anywhere in the world which would allow politicians to order social platforms to change content on their platforms, because the precedent for countries hostile to democracy would be very alarming.”
He suggested that it would be more effective for governments to engage - “pick up a phone, or send an email to” - platforms like Facebook and Twitter and have them take action, rather than go down the legislative track in the first instance.
But Mr Shanmugam countered: “When you are the United States, I suppose you can talk to them. You can understand that maybe other countries, when they talk to these large international platforms, what if they say no to you? To a country like Singapore? What do we do?”
“That’s when you can start thinking of legislation,” said Mr Nimmo. “But in terms of flexibility and speed of response ... it’s much quicker to have a dedicated contact system, so that in severe cases you can reach directly to them.”
“Which approach you take is really a question of philosophy,” Mr Shanmugam replied. “A balance to be struck between somebody’s right to set out and propagate falsehoods on the one hand, a right to pursue that kind of behavior … balanced against a society’s right to protect itself and make sure there is peace and harmony.”
To which Mr Nimmo said: “If you’re thinking of crafting a law which tells the platforms you have to take down false information when we tell you … How will you define the problem? There are so many grey areas here. Just the preamble to your legislation is going to be the size of the Oxford Dictionary.”
Their back-and-forth, which lasted for about half an hour, concluded with Mr Shanmugam stating: “It’s a matter of values but I think it is entirely justified for the state to intervene and say, ‘This is not allowed’.
"There are different ways of approaching it, one is you think that there should be a counter to the story, and you don't ask for that to be taken down, you ask them to carry some clarification which is an alternate view … there is no censorship in that sense but you leave it to the readers to judge.
"The other possibility which was suggested was … there are instances where it is completely manufactured and totally untrue, which is legally very easily identifiable and you ask for it to be taken down, but you give an opportunity to the other side to then come and perhaps deal with it at a neutral tribunal," he continued.
"Legislation may not necessarily just be one solution, there might have to be different solutions for slightly differentiated outcomes."
“I think that makes sense,” said Mr Nimmo. “The more acceptance of nuance you build in, the better."
“MAKE AS MANY PEOPLE AS ANGRY AS POSSIBLE”
Earlier, Mr Nimmo also touched on how both short-term and long-term disinformation operations might affect Singapore.
“For Singapore, political debates, moments of tension between ethnic, religious and political groups, demonstrations and security incidents are all events which are at risk of large-scale false information or false accounts by domestic or foreign actors,” he wrote.
“Longer-term operations typically focus on promoting or attacking a particular point of view.”
Mr Shanmugam then reiterated a point he made earlier in the day with local security expert Dr Shashi Jayakumar, noting: “Presumably, this methodology, there’s nothing secret about it, and much smaller countries can access these methods of infiltration?”
Mr Nimmo nodded. “What you need is a building with lots of computers and Internet connections, appropriate VPN masking, fake phone numbers and enough people to do the job. It’s not an expensive or particularly high-tech prospect.”
These are methods which “pretty well anybody could use”, he said.
Mr Nimmo also wrote that in Singapore, “election campaigns and tensions between different social, religious, political, economic and ethnic groups are likely to be the main targets of any such attempts, as the campaigns tend to gradually inflame tensions and hollow out the political centre at the expense of the fringes”.
“What you’re really saying is such campaigns eventually, over time, move the middle ground by making them angry and push them to either side of the political spectrum,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“That’s correct, and it seems that the intent is to make as many people as possible, as angry as possible,” Dr Nimmo replied.
“Partly because when people are angry, they’re easier to manipulate. Their critical faculties to analysing information will be reduced.
“And partly, to make the target harder to govern - the more you have people shouting and screaming at each other, the less easy it is to have a sensible debate.”