Facebook's stance on deliberate online falsehoods reinforces need for legislative powers: Edwin Tong
SINGAPORE: Facebook's refusal to take down a post by the States Times Review linking Singapore with the 1MDB investigations demonstrates why the country "cannot rely on the goodwill of such service provider platforms" to protect it from disinformation campaigns, said Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Law Edwin Tong in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 20).
He added that the social media giant's stance on the issue reinforces the Select Committee’s recommendation that legislative powers are needed to protect Singapore from deliberate online falsehoods.
Mr Tong was speaking in response to a question by MP Murali Pillai on the "deliberate online falsehood" alleging that Singapore is involved in corrupt 1MDB deals as reported by the States Times Review, China Press and other online platforms.
Facebook earlier stated that it did not accede to Singapore authorities’ request to take down the States Times Review post linking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with 1MDB investigations because it does not "have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm".
READ: Shanmugam says States Times Review article has 'absurd allegations', questions how Malaysian media picked up story
In addressing this, Mr Tong said: "There are many situations where serious harm is caused even though there is no potential for imminent violence or physical harm. And as members will appreciate, the slow drip of poison, over a period of time, can one day result and burst into violence."
"And Facebook will do nothing about it, despite the various statements made in Singapore and elsewhere. It will allow itself to be a platform for the spread of lies, falsity to poison and divide societies through such lies, encourage xenophobia, and profit from that," added Mr Tong, who is also Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Health.
The Facebook post by the States Times Review shared an article alleging that Malaysia had signed several unfair agreements with Singapore in exchange for Singapore banks’ assistance in laundering 1MDB funds.
On Nov 9, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) denounced the article as "baseless and defamatory" and filed a police report over it. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had stressed that the allegations were "absurd".
On the same day, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued an order for States Times Review to take down the article.
When it refused, the regulator directed Internet service providers in Singapore to restrict access to the website.
IMDA also asked Facebook to take down a post sharing the article, but the social media platform did not accede to the request.
ARTICLE POTENTIALLY SEEN BY MORE THAN 800,000 USERS
In his Parliamentary reply, Mr Tong stated that the article by the States Times Review was shared around 1,600 times on Facebook as on Nov 8.
He highlighted that some of these shares resulted from a concerted effort by a small group of users to spread the article across multiple Facebook groups; including groups that ostensibly cover unrelated subjects.
“The shares by this small group of just seven users accounted for the falsehood potentially being seen by over 800,000 users who were members of these Facebook groups,” Mr Tong said.
He explained that on Nov 7, the States Times Review article was reproduced on Malaysian website The Coverage and Malaysian Chinese-language newspaper China Press, where it was viewed 45,000 times in one day. Two YouTube videos were also put up, translating the allegations into Mandarin, he added.
“It is interesting that in this case, the spread of disinformation followed a pattern that has been established elsewhere – a falsehood first appears in an obscure site, and then gets picked up by mainstream media, which lends credence to the claims,” said Mr Tong.