SINGAPORE: Parliament agreed on Wednesday (Jan 10) to establish a Select Committee to look into the problem of deliberate online falsehoods and recommend strategies to deal with them.
Singapore is "highly susceptible" to such falsehoods, said Law Minister K Shanmugam as he moved the motion for the appointment of the committee.
Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said the deliberate spread of online falsehoods is a serious problem around the world today, and Singapore is susceptible because there is high Internet penetration here with 91 per cent of households having Web access.
With this, it is easy to attack and spread falsehoods online, he added.
He also mentioned the country's diversity, in terms of it being a multiracial and multi-religious society, as another reason given that these are "fault lines" that can be easily exploited by falsehoods. He cited the June 2017 incident when false rumours were spread of cat and dog meat sold at the Geylang Serai Bazaar via Facebook and WhatsApp as an example of this.
The minister added that the country's status as a key strategic node and key player in ASEAN also makes it attractive as a target. "What we say on regional issues, international issues, carries weight," Mr Shanmugam said. "If we can be influenced and swayed, then foreign interests can be advanced through us."
His speech in Parliament reiterated the reasons set out in the Green Paper titled "Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications", which was issued by the Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Law last Friday.
His motion stated that the composition of the Select Committee would have Mr Charles Chong, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, as the chair along with seven Government MPs, an Opposition MP and a Nominated MP.
On why appoint a Select Committee, Mr Shanmugam said the Government has been "studying this problem for a while" and this body can examine this problem in depth and consult as widely as possible.
As part of this consultation process, the body can decide whether to hold public hearings and to hear from witnesses, he said, adding that in his own view, it would be useful to do so. After which, they can come up with counter-measures on how to protect Singapore against this threat, the minister said.
Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), had commented last Friday that because the hearings are going to be made public, there is "tremendous educational value" for the general public. This is because it helps people understand the whole problem of online falsehoods and the kinds of implications it can have for Singapore’s racial and social harmony as well as political stability, the professor said.
"FALSEHOODS CAN GO VIRAL IN SECONDS": YAACOB IBRAHIM
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim also spoke in support of the motion, saying Singapore has fallen victim to foreign interference through falsehoods and misinformation before. He cited the example of The Eastern Sun receiving HK$8 million from a Communist intelligence agency from Hong Kong to not oppose China on major issues and publish news items of the Communists' choice.
"We were fortunate to nip these in the bud early enough, so that this campaign did not sink our young nation back in the day. But today, such orchestrated campaigns can wreak even more harm," Dr Yaacob said.
"In the Internet age, falsehoods can go viral in seconds. Digital content can be easily manipulated to make it more provocative, and stir emotions more easily. Anyone can publish or share falsehoods online, even from halfway around the world.
"The net result is that online falsehoods can destabilise societies far more easily than ever before," he added.
The minister said public education remains the country's first line of defence, but "it is not enough". Mechanisms need to be put in place to respond swiftly to these falsehoods, and there needs to be an inclusive approach to address the issue holistically, involving the public and private sectors.
"We need a broader national conversation about this issue, so everyone has a shared understanding of the threat, and a sense of ownership about the solution," Dr Yaacob said.
At the end of the debate, 80 MPs voted in favour of the establishment of the committee.