SINGAPORE: The first indication of the kind of new laws Singapore could enact to stem the spread of online misinformation could be clearer by the first half of 2019. Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong revealed this in an interview with Channel NewsAsia, saying that draft legislation could be tabled by then.
While legislation to regulate Singapore’s online space and tackle the spread of misinformation is widely expected, there has been little detail so far, as to what exactly would be worded in law.
The Select Committee - which was convened to delve into the issue and how it can be dealt with - submitted its 317-page report to Parliament in September. The report emphasised the need for a multi-pronged approach and highlighted both legislative and non-legislative measures.
Asked how Singapore would define the problem in law, Mr Tong, who is also one of the members of the Select Committee, referred to a number of objectives to take into consideration. He highlighted that the goals of any legislation, which is part of a range of solutions to the problem, include disrupting the use of tools that amplify falsehoods like inauthentic accounts run by bots or trolls and safeguarding the democratic process and public discourse.
“How we precisely scope it out and define it will have to rest on how we see those pieces coming together,” said Mr Tong
He added that “there is a lot of work to be done,” and highlighted challenges in ensuring legislation is calibrated.
“(For example), there are obviously different types of information out there, and there are also different types of deterrent effects we want to achieve. For a falsehood that has gone out, there's not much that you can do by way of criminalising conduct that can affect the falsehood (itself) … You can then use the fact that you have sanctions and legislation as a deterrence for future purveyors of falsehood,” said Mr Tong.
THE ROLE OF TECH COMPANIES
Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have been central to the discussion around deliberate online falsehoods as their platforms have been misused to spread misinformation. To that end, Mr Tong said the aim is to set parameters where such companies can operate.
“Because they play such a dominant role in this entire issue, and carry with them so much of the control being the people who run the platforms … we want to see what we can do to ensure that we can level off that position,”
When pressed on what kind of powers legislation would give the Government to compel tech companies to act, and whether the social media giants have an avenue to appeal, Mr Tong did not want to get into the specifics, but assured that whatever provisions "will always be subject to some degree of oversight."
"There will be the question as to whether that would be judiciary or some other body, but there will be some system and some processes to which some oversight can be done," added Mr Tong.
Mr Tong also addressed fears that laws could be used to clamp down on alternative viewpoints or public discourse, by pointing out that disagreement is not necessarily something that’s frowned upon, but “good, effective and strong public discourse is not the same as saying (anything a person wants).”
"When you have public discourse riddled with false information, or bots which amplify the false information, or fake accounts that … overblow a situation … that's not effective public discourse, that is discussing something on false premises."
SAFEGUARDING ELECTION INTEGRITY
As societies around the world saw fake news disrupting their electoral processes, the Select Committee also recommended that the Government identify additional measures to safeguard Singapore’s election integrity. This could include legislation.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had separately indicated that it is possible for the next General Election to be brought forward, paving the way for possible polls in 2019.
When asked if the Government is looking to implement more measures to protect Singapore’s electoral integrity, Mr Tong clarified that the impact of falsehoods on democratic institutions and processes is “more general” and “impacts daily life much more than just elections alone”.
“If you have provisions that deal with how you tackle (and combat) falsehoods … (as well as) stem its proliferation, that would in many ways go towards the same objectives as well during elections,” he said. Mr Tong added that the Government will look at whether it is necessary to have legislative measures to deal with falsehoods during an election process.
“We’ll see, but I would say let's start with dealing with the issue here on a general nature and then decide or not whether there needs to be any special rules for elections subsequently.”
NURTURING A GENERATION OF CRITICAL THINKERS
Efforts to better empower Singaporeans to identify online misinformation are also underway, and a national framework for media literacy is set to be launched in 2019.
Mr Tong said nurturing a generation of critical thinkers will require the concerted effort of players in the information ecosystem - including media organisations and schools. He acknowledged that while falsehoods may not always be easily identified - in some cases it’s “so mixed up with truths … that it begins to seed doubts and cast aspersions” - education is key.
“I think being sensitised to (falsehoods), knowing what it might be, having a broader ability to have sources like fact-checkers to go to, have information from relevant agencies, and just being able to discern … would help,” said Mr Tong.
“It's not going to happen overnight, but it doesn't mean we don't start, and we have started now.”