SINGAPORE: The Government is "seriously considering" how to address the fake news issue and will announce its position upon completion of a review, said Minister of Law K Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday (Apr 3).
“Under our current law, there are limited remedies to deal with these falsehoods,” he acknowledged. “For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit messages knowing it is false. But these remedies are ineffective. They were really looking at a time before this new age. The circulation of falsehoods can grow viral today very quickly, and so we need to do more.”
Mr Shanmugam said fake news was a problem in Singapore, albeit not yet at a level seen globally where it has expressly interfered with both domestic political and international affairs.
“We see the phenomenon hasn’t had that much impact yet, but you can predict the same sequence of actors - foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside of Singapore using it to either destabilise our society or... doing it to make money. Both are problematic,” he stated.
He pointed to the defunct The Real Singapore (TRS) as a website that regularly generated fake news for profit, citing examples such as a 2015 piece which claimed a commotion between Thaipusam participants and police was sparked by complaints from a Filipino family.
One of the co-founders of TRS has since set up the States Times Review website, which continues in a similar vein of publishing fake news from outside Singapore, said Mr Shanmugam.
“Last August, the States Times Review claimed a near-zero turnout for former president SR Nathan’s funeral, and that kindergarten kids were forced to attend, in an attempt to paint him as an unpopular president,” said Mr Shanmugam.
The whole purpose is to purvey falsehoods, mislead the public and render truth completely irrelevant, he said.
Referring to the All Singapore Stuff website as another instance, Mr Shanmugam pointed to a fake story in November last year on how the rooftop of Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed.
“The police, civil defence, all had to be mobilised and deployed to investigate the claim. Taxpayers pay the cost for all of this,” he explained. “Another post widely circulated on social media falsely claimed a childcare centre in River Valley made children sleep on the floor, eat rotten fruit… There was public outcry, but can you imagine the impact on the childcare operator?”
“Hoaxes like these can have real world consequences,” Mr Shanmugam said. “If not quickly corrected, they can cause harm to Singaporeans, alarm to public, emergency resources will have to be diverted, and reputations of businesses and people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged. All because some nasty people seek to profit from this.”
“There is a much more serious dimension to all of this,” he added. “Fake news today, we must assume can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign governments… to get into the public mind, to destabilise the public, to psychologically weaken them.
“That’s a very serious threat and it will be naive for us to believe that governments or state agencies don’t engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do.”