Singapore’s Law to Regulate Fake News

Singapore’s much anticipated legislation to regulate and control the spread of fake new and misinformation or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was finally came into effect from October 2, 2019 after much of debate, discussion and deliberation in the Parliament.

Backdrop and Introduction:

Mr. K. Shanmugam, Minister of Law and Home Affairs on April 3, 2017 informed the Parliament that Government is “seriously considering” how to combat fake news as contemporary laws those were in force were not effective enough in tackling the menace. He also, referring to several incidents of misinformation campaign in countries like US and UK just before 2018 Presidential Election and 2016 Brexit Referendum respectively, noted that fake news can also be used as a potent weapon and tool to interfere with internal affairs and politics of a country. He said that, “They can cause harm to innocent Singaporeans; they can cause unnecessary alarm to the public; emergency resources may be diverted from legitimate emergencies and the reputation of honest Singapore businesses may be unfairly damaged.” He also added, among other things, that the Government is not concerned with “trivial, factual inaccuracies, but with falsehoods that can cause real harm.”

In the Parliament the Minister also recognised that, “Fake news has been a problem in Singapore, not quite at the level that I have listed in other countries, but we see the phenomena. It has not had that much of an impact yet, but you can predict that the same sequence of actors – foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside of Singapore – using it to either destabilise our society, or not caring whether it destabilises but doing it to make a lot of money. Both are problematic.”

Oral Answer by Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Questions on Fake News

The POFMA is not intended to cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody. Simply put, POFMA prohibits the communication of ‘false statements of fact’ in Singapore.

Application of the Law:

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, 2019 (POFMA) applies to any “material” that contains any statement which is false. The “material” can be a message, an article, a post, a picture, a video or a voice clip.  A “false statement” has been defined as a statement which “is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”. The law covers any false statement which has been made available to one or more end-users in Singapore via the internet, SMS or MMS. Hence this law shall apply to any false statement found on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and even on private chat groups and social media groups.

Enforcement of the Law:

The POFMA Act lays down a well organised, step by step mechanism for the law enforcement to responding to any incident of fake news and misinformation, which is:

  1. Fact-checking of statements,
  2. Censorship of website or social media platforms, and
  3. Penalisation with criminal charges.

Under the law the ministers are to instruct the appointed Competent Authority to make good any fake news or misinformation that is in circulation or public domain.

Directions to be issued thereafter:

  • Correction Direction

A Correction Direction shall be issued to a propagator of fake news, directing the person to place a notice stating that the statement he shared was found to be false and a correction of the false information. The Correction Notice may be placed online or in close proximity of the false statement or published in a Singapore newspaper.

The notice will still need to be published even if the party who communicated the falsehood had already taken down the content containing the falsehood.

  • Stop Communication Direction-

A Stop Communication Direction may also be issued, instructing the person to disable access of the false statement to end-users in Singapore by a specified time.

  • Targeted Correction Direction-

A Targeted Correction Direction may be sent to internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services to communicate the Correction Notice in response to a false statement to all end-users in Singapore who accessed the concerned false statement through that platform.

  • Disabling Direction-

A Disabling Direction may be issued to disable access of an online location to end-users in Singapore. Here, an internet service provider (like Jio or Airtel in India) whose service had been used to communicate the falsehood in Singapore, will be ordered to disable end-user access to that falsehood in Singapore.

  • General Correction Direction-

A General Correction Direction may be issued to concerned Internet service provider, Newspaper, Broadcaster, Telecommunications service provider or any other prescribed person, to communicate a Correction Notice to its end-users via publication in their newspaper or broadcast, or via transmission by a telecommunications service.

Penalty and Imprisonment:

Non-compliance with these abovementioned directions is an offence for which individuals can be fined up to Singaporean $20,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 12 months. For non-individuals, they may be liable to a fine up to Singaporean $500,000.

Use of Fake Accounts and Bots to Propagate False Information:

An Account Restriction Direction may be issued to order an internet intermediary or social media platform to shut down any fake accounts and bots on its platform and prevent the accounts’ owners from communicating with end-users in Singapore.

An individual who knowingly communicates a false statement online, and does so through a fake account or bot can be fined up to S$100,000 and/or face a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years. Non-individuals can be fined up to S$1 million.

Individuals who make or alter a bot for the purposes of communicating a falsehood can face a fine of up to S$30,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of up to 3 years. Non-individuals can face a fine of up to S$500,000

Case of Alex Tan:

Alex Tan is an anti-government activist, a political dissident from Singapore, now self-exiled to Australia. He had his own website through which he opined his socio-political thoughts and put forward his criticism of the Singapore government. He has been accused of spreading fake news and misinformation by the Singapore law enforcement agencies a number of times on several subjects.

A Correction Direction was sent to Alex Tan in November 2019 to place a Correction Notice on fake news in a post on the States Times Review’s Facebook page (One of Tan’s website’s Facebook page) which alleged that People’s Action Party (the ruling dispensation), in order to gain support of the Christian community is going to put up a Christian evangelist candidate in the upcoming elections and they are possibly planning to turning Singapore into a Christian state and that a whistle-blower was arrested and would soon be charged for “fabricating fake news”.

Later, the claims were found to be unsubstantiated and false. But Alex Tan did not comply with the direction, saying that he is no longer a citizen of Singapore and now lives in Australia.

And as a result, Facebook was issued a Targeted Correction Direction to place the correction notice on the Facebook post. Facebook was then directed to disable Singapore users’ access to Tan’s pages.

Criticisms:

Facebook’s spokesperson expressed the company’s concern by stating that although it was “legally compelled” to comply, “blocking orders such as this are severe and risk being misused to stifle voices and perspectives on the internet”. Other tech giants like Google and Twitter have also expressed similar concerns about the POFMA Act.

Many opposition leaders have voiced their concern about this legislation, prominent among them is Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party. He has stated that, “ministers should not be the deciding body on what constitutes false matters.”

The Singapore Government on the other hand has asserted strongly that the anti-fake news legislation is crucial to protect the country from the clutches of fake news and misinformation which has emerged as a major challenge in the recent times that could give rise to lasting hostility among its people if left unchecked.

Bibliography:

  1. Oral Answer by Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Questions on Fake News (mlaw.gov.sg)
  2. Parliament: Government to review laws to tackle fake news, Politics News & Top Stories – The Straits Times
  3. Singapore Fake News Laws: Guide to POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) | SingaporeLegalAdvice.com
  4. Singapore Has A ‘Fake News Law’; What Are The Arguments For A Similar Legislation In India? (swarajyamag.com)
  5. Facebook slams Singapore’s POFMA law as “severe” after being ordered to geo-block certain pages – The Independent Singapore News

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