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Committee of MPs to mull over issue of online falsehoods to be established: MinLaw

Business Times
06 Jan 2018
Seow Bei Yi

A Committee of 10 Members of Parliament (MPs) could be set up to mull over the issue of fake news online - and whether laws should be introduced to combat them.

Last June, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that new legislation to tackle fake news is likely to be introduced this year .

Specialists said that they supported the move to form a committee, and that it could mean more public education rather than the use of legal means to fight the growing problem of falsehoods circulating online.

Mr Shanmugam said in a statement on Friday that he intends to move the motion to appoint the Select Committee in Parliament next Wednesday.

To be chaired by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, the proposed committee should comprise seven MPs from the ruling People's Action Party, one member from the opposition and one Nominated MP, said the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) on Friday. These members have to be nominated by a Committee of Selection, led by Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin.

The Select Committee will take submissions from the public and hold public hearings to gather feedback. It then reports to Parliament with its recommendations, which will be published as well.

"Singapore needs to be prepared ahead of time for the real and serious challenges posed by online falsehoods," said MinLaw on the formation of the committee.

It said that political and social discourse can be "seriously influenced" by deliberate falsehoods spread online. There is a high risk of foreign interference from those who want to destabilise the country, it added.

With Singapore being among the most open and globally connected countries in the world, it said, the nation is an attractive target. It is also vulnerable, being a multi-racial and religiously-diverse society.

The ministry did not say why it is not proposing that laws be enacted immediately this year.

In a Green Paper issued with the Ministry of Communications and Information also on Friday, MinLaw said that while discourse and debate should remain open, "dissemination of deliberate falsehoods, particularly if this is done covertly, attacks the very heart of democracy" by preventing constructive discourse.

With Singapore's strict rules against foreign interference in its politics, through existing laws such as the Political Donations Act and Societies Act, the same rules should apply to cyberspace, the paper added.

It is the first time since 1988 that the government has issued a Green Paper, which is a discussion paper containing proposals on an issue for public discussion.

The Green Paper noted the role of technology, such as automated bots that act like and interact with accounts of real people, spreading spam on social media networks. "By sheer volume, they can create a false impression of public support for, or relevance to, a particular story or movement," said the paper. Other strategies include coordinated re-posting of articles to create a sense that many support the information.

"Another strategy has been to exploit existing rifts within society - including racial, religious or political rifts - to stoke anger and entrench these divisions," said the paper.

It then gave examples of how other countries have been hit by falsehoods - many of which aimed at interfering with elections and referenda.

In the lead-up to the French presidential election, data stolen from President Emmanuel Macron's campaign team were posted by an anonymous user on an American forum. His campaign later alleged that "numerous false documents" had been added to genuine stolen documents on social media "in order to sow doubt and disinformation".

Such cases led to countries and technology companies taking steps to address the spread. Last year, Germany enacted an Act that requires social networks with more than two million German users to take down illegal content - including hate speech - within 24 hours of it being reported.

Facebook has also used artificial intelligence to detect and delete bots, fake accounts and pages.

Source: Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.