Legislative ‘levers’ may be needed to deal with hostile information campaigns, says Josephine Teo
SINGAPORE: Legislative “levers” may be needed to allow Singapore to better respond to hostile information campaigns, as part of efforts to guard against foreign interference in the country’s politics.
These levers will allow the Government to obtain the necessary information to investigate hostile information campaigns to determine if they are of foreign provenance or artificial, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo on Monday (Mar 1).
They would also allow the authorities to “break the virality” of such campaigns if they are found to be conducted by foreign actors to subvert Singapore’s politics, as well as carry out counter-messaging to alert people in Singapore to these campaigns, she said.
The Government is studying other countries’ approaches to such campaigns, she added.
READ: Commentary: What next as the Government looks beyond disinformation in targeting foreign influence in Singapore
“Singapore needs to be open to the world to make a living. But our diversity and openness also present opportunities for foreign actors,” said Mrs Teo during the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) Committee of Supply debate.
In the 1970s, Singapore was the target of two interference operations involving newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald, she noted. These newspapers received funding from foreign sources and in return, ran articles that “sought to undermine our nascent nation-building efforts”.
When Singapore was facing bilateral issues with “our immediate neighbour” in 2018 and 2019, there was a “curious spike” in online comments critical of Singapore, she said.
“Many of these comments came from anonymous accounts, which sought to give an artificial impression to Singaporeans that there were significant and fundamental objections to Singapore's position,” she said.
Mrs Teo noted that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed that globally, cases of cyber-enabled foreign interference in elections increased from seven between 2011 and 2015, to 41 between 2016 and 2020. There have also been reports from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand that showed that foreign powers and their agents had attempted to influence those countries’ politics by buying off political parties and individual politicians.
“At the same time, social media platforms have not dealt, and have little interest to deal with these threats,” said Mrs Teo.
“For instance, political observers in the US have attributed the storming of the US Capitol to the failure of social media platforms to take timely and firm action against election misinformation and calls for violent resistance.
READ: Shanmugam warns of foreign interference in Singapore; questions agenda, funding of The Online Citizen
“Fortunately for us, last year’s Parliamentary Elections went peacefully. However, looking at what has been happening in other countries, there is reason for more robust preventive measures.”
Many countries have taken steps to mitigate this risk, such as by introducing legislation to address the threat of foreign interference in their domestic politics, said Mrs Teo.
“For instance, Australia has made it compulsory for those who undertake activities on behalf of foreign principals to make public disclosures, to deter covert influence attempts to influence,” she added.
“To address the threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics, we must in the first place, build up Singaporeans’ ability to discern legitimate and artificial online discourse, and respond appropriately.
“However, as interference operations are increasingly sophisticated and well disguised, it is not enough to have a discerning public.”
Given the recent experience of other countries, further measures also need to be considered to guard against “foreign subversion of politically significant individuals and entities”, said Mrs Teo.
“For example, what levels of transparency in funding, support, and leadership is appropriate, for whom?” she added.
“The public has a big part in this, to shape proposals and to give the eventual safeguards their strongest support. It is the only way we can effectively deter bad foreign actors from exploiting our vulnerabilities.”
In February 2019, Mr Edwin Tong, who was then Senior Minister of State for Law, said the Government would consider updating the legal framework to respond to threats of foreign interference and information campaigns.
Mr Tong told Parliament that there were signs that Singapore has been targeted for information campaigns. Testimony given during meetings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods highlighted the use of news articles and social media to influence segments of Singapore's population.
HARMFUL ONLINE CONTENT AND TERRORISM
Foreign interference was identified by Mrs Teo as one of the “key challenges and emerging threats” MHA is paying particular attention to, with another two being terrorism and harmful content online.
“Some platforms do put in effort to deal with harmful content. But not every platform puts society’s interests first. This is to be expected – platforms are driven by their own values and commercial interests,” she said, adding that many countries have seen the need for regulation.
For example, Germany has passed legislation requiring platforms to respond to user complaints about unlawful content, she said.
“Many tech companies have acknowledged the need for regulation, even if they disagree with governments on the ‘how’,” said Mrs Teo.
“We have been working with MCI (Ministry of Communications and Information) to study the experiences and regulatory models in other countries, and are reviewing our options. This may include new regulatory levers, to enable us to deal with serious online harms effectively.”
Terrorism remains “a serious threat”, said the minister, adding that terrorists only “need to get through once, to cause us serious damage”.
Singapore has forged strong working relationships with foreign security agencies to share intelligence and disrupt plots, while encouraging members of the public to report suspicious activities or individuals.
“The best way to neutralise their (terrorists’) threat is to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society,” said Mrs Teo.
“Over the years, we have refined our approach based on our own experiences, learning from international best practices, and in response to the changing profile of detainees. We have had good results and will continue to refine our rehabilitation approach.”
MAINTAINING PUBLIC TRUST
Mrs Teo said the Home Team would continue to uphold the “highest level of integrity and conduct” among its officers.
“Where there are allegations of improper discharge of duties by Home Team officers, we will investigate thoroughly,” she said.
“If the allegations are substantiated, firm action is taken against the officers. Where we have slipped up as an organisation, we have acknowledged unreservedly, and tightened up.”
She said there have been efforts by some to “de-legitimise our police and other law enforcement agencies” by circulating false allegations through social media.
“These irresponsible social media posts seek to weaken public trust in the Home Team, and weaken our ability to maintain law and order. We need the public’s help to be responsible, and refrain from spreading false allegations and misinformation,” said Mrs Teo.
Meanwhile, MHA is also improving its processes to better serve the public.
Mrs Teo noted that video recording of police interviews (VRI), which was introduced in 2018 and was initially used only in the investigation of rape offences, has been gradually expanded to cover offences such as child abuse.
“VRI requires substantial investment in technology, infrastructure, and most important of all training. We will gradually expand the types of offences to be covered by VRI,” she said, noting "budgetary constraints" as progress was made in this area.
The police currently engage the services of interpreters for foreign languages, including Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog and Bengali.
Mrs Teo added that if a person requires interpretation, the police would engage an interpreter and record the statement only when the interpreter is available.
Singapore’s safety and security landscape is getting more challenging, said Mrs Teo.
“We have been doing quite well, and will invest more resources to tackle emerging threats. We will continue to do what it takes to uphold the trust of Singaporeans through our capabilities, our integrity, and our impartiality,” she added.
“We will need the strong support and help of fellow Singaporeans, and must be able to count on this.”