Call for legislation to curb fake news on social media
But tackling such platforms can be tricky, say experts ahead of global meeting on issue.
If social media platforms such as Facebook do not do enough to stop the spread of fake news, then legislation is needed to tackle the problem. This is a problem faced not just by Singapore, but also by other countries, said Mr Charles Chong, chairman of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.
Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Sun Xueling and Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh will be in London on Tuesday for the International Grand Committee on Fake News and Disinformation hearing.
The committee includes members of the parliaments of Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Canada, Ireland, Latvia and the United Kingdom.
Describing it as an unprecedented session on disinformation and fake news, Mr Chong said: "I don't think any country has got a perfect solution for this yet. As a small country, if Singapore tries to take on Facebook, I don't think we will get anywhere. Facebook will just completely ignore us.
"But collectively, we will probably be taken more seriously."
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has said that he was "unable" to testify at the rare joint hearing and Mr Richard Allan, the company's vice-president of policy solutions, would be taking his place.
There has been increasing scrutiny of how social media firms combat hate speech and terrorism online, as well as help spread misinformation during elections.
Over the last few weeks, the Singapore government itself has aired its disappointment with Facebook.
Sociopolitical site States Times Review had published an article which the authorities labelled as "baseless and defamatory" earlier this month, as well as a Facebook post linked to the article.
The authorities here asked Facebook to deny access to the post, but it declined.
It said it did not have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from situations where the content had the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm.
In Parliament last Tuesday, Mr Tong said the incident "demonstrates why we cannot rely on the goodwill of service provider platforms to protect Singapore from disinformation campaigns".
Mr Chong, who is Deputy Speaker and Punggol East MP, told The Sunday Times: "Facebook has always said it is doing things to reduce falsehoods, but many governments around the world feel they are not doing a good enough job.
"Platforms have been reluctant to do anything about content, arguing that they are not content providers and not responsible for what is posted on them. But to many countries, including Singapore, I think this position is increasingly untenable. I don't think we should do nothing. "
Lawyers and legal experts said that dealing with platforms such as Facebook can be tricky.
National University of Singapore (NUS) law dean Simon Chesterman said: "For many years, Facebook insisted it is a platform and not a publisher. The distinction is important because a platform would mean that Facebook is like the wires down which information travels, as opposed to a newspaper that decides what to print.
"You can't sue Singtel for what people say on the phone, but you can sue The Straits Times for what it puts on its pages."
Professor Chesterman noted that, after much public criticism, Facebook had accepted it is more than just a platform and does have policies on preventing certain content being posted or taken down. But he added: "Truth is a lot harder to determine, and poses practical challenges as well as ethical ones."
Professor David Tan, who teaches entertainment law at the NUS Law Faculty, said that, unlike take-down notices for copyright infringement which are relatively straightforward for social media platforms to act on, it is far more difficult for Facebook to verify the truth of information published by its users.
And as Facebook is a company incorporated in the United States, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment tends to impel it to tolerate a wider spectrum of speech than in other countries.
He said: "If the Singapore Government chooses to enact specific legislation to tackle fake news, that is its sovereign prerogative.
"But I doubt it currently has a legal standing to demand that Facebook removes posts which allegedly convey false information."
Lawyer Bryan Tan, 47, a technology partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay, said the problem of curbing fake news on platforms is not as simple as just taking down a site.
He said: "Remember, someone else put it up, and the act of taking it down without justification could end up creating other problems."
The issue with popular platforms involves multiple jurisdictions, he added. In some cases, it sometimes involves professional and, possibly, state actors. "Add to that the use of bots, fake accounts and other tools - this task is even more complex."
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told The Sunday Times it is important not to forget that the Internet and technology firms such as Facebook and Google have been a force for good in many ways.
He said: "We must not lose sight of that point, in all the negative publicity that now surrounds some of the tech companies.
"What we need to recognise is that bad people have exploited these platforms to cause significant and often irreparable harm to communities. Technology companies made the mistake of not acknowledging this initially. But they have started to take steps voluntarily to tackle these bad actors.
"Nevertheless, more needs to be done; voluntary action will not be sufficient. The Government has to take steps. It cannot abdicate its responsibilities to protect people from the harm that can be caused by disinformation spread on technology companies' platforms."
Facebook explains its policy
"We want Facebook to be an environment where people feel safe to express themselves and connect with the people and issues they care about. That's why we have our Community Standards, which have been designed to ensure our community is free from abuse and intimidation when they use our services. We regularly evolve our Community Standards to keep up with social, linguistic and cultural contexts, and we are continuing to invest in people and technology to ensure we are effectively enforcing our policies to keep our community safe.
"We've been investing in our efforts to tackle false news. This kind of work requires great cross-sector collaboration, and over the past two years, we've worked with partners, including academics, media publishers, civil society groups and the government.
"Our efforts include digital literacy initiatives with local partners, helping Singaporeans spot false news, strengthening and amplifying credible news organisations, and removing content that violates our fake account, spam, misrepresentation and credible threats of violence policies. We have also invested in technology and teams to identify coordinated inauthentic behaviour and disrupt attempts to manipulate civic discourse, and have developed a new policy which allows us to remove misinformation that is inciting offline violence. This work will never be done, but we remain committed to working alongside our partners to protect our community."
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.