Parliament has agreed on Wednesday (10 January) to appoint a Select Committee to examine and report into the problem of deliberate online falsehoods and recommend strategies to deal with them.
Speaking on the motion on the Parliament, the Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that the deliberate spread of online falsehoods today is a serious problem around the world.
He said that countries across the world have been the subject of organised, deliberate disinformation campaigns, conducted both by state actors, targeted at destabilising other countries, and also non-state actors.
“They spread the falsehoods deliberately to both interfere with the democratic processes, within countries, and to also destabilise and undermine institutions, within a specific country,” he said.
He then noted that most members, if not all, will have come across these examples reported almost on a daily basis in the media.
He then said that there are three reasons why the Government should put this issue into concern. First, the very high internet penetration in Singapore as more than 91% of Singaporean households have internet access.
“So it is easy to attack and spread falsehoods in Singapore. We have seen it happening,” he said.
Second, the diversity, as a multi-racial, multi-religious society, which makes it easy to exploit the fault-lines through falsehoods.
“You get completely fabricated stories spreading,” he said, citing the example of the cat and dog meat which were mixed into a marinade of satay in a Geylang bazaar.
“That’s a relatively minor example though it can make a lot of people very angry. But you have more serious examples from other countries,” he said.
“People can and have targeted specific sections of populations. They can target specific sections of our population – using falsehoods based on race, religion,” the minister added.
Third is the country’s international position, both in this region and internationally, which makes Singapore an attractive target.
“We are a key strategic node; a key player in ASEAN. We are a trade hub, commercial hub, financial hub, for this entire region. What we say on regional issues, international issues carries weight. So if we can be influenced and swayed, then foreign interests can be advanced through us,” he said.
He then said that Singapore has been the subject of foreign interference in the past, citing example of a Malaysian politician who finance a newspaper in Singapore which campaigns against National Service.
“Wide spreading of falsehoods can drown out the facts; can cause people to be disillusioned; can be manipulated to create rifts, and damage social cohesion. So the people who shout loudest and shout falsehoods, are those who will get hurt. Falsehoods, because they tend to be focused on playing to people’s feelings and getting them to be angry, by putting forward points which are completely fabricated,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam then suggested that the Composition of the Select Committee, a default position is for 10 members, comprising of eight Government MPs, one Opposition MP and one NMP.
In support of the motion, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim told the Parliament that Singapore has fallen victim to foreign interference through falsehoods and misinformation before, citing the example of The Eastern Sun receiving HK$8 million from a Communist intelligence agency from Hong Kong to not oppose China on major issues and publish news items of the Communists’ choice.
He said, “We were fortunate to nip these in the bud early enough, so that this campaign did not sink our young nation back in the day. But today, such orchestrated campaigns can wreak even more harm.”
“In the Internet age, falsehoods can go viral in seconds. Digital content can be easily manipulated to make it more provocative, and stir emotions more easily. Anyone can publish or share falsehoods online, even from halfway around the world. The net result is that online falsehoods can destabilise societies far more easily than ever before,” Dr Yaacob added.
The minister said that public education remains the country’s first line of defence, however, he noted that “it is not enough”. Mechanisms need to be put in place to respond swiftly to these falsehoods, and there needs to be an inclusive approach to address the issue holistically, involving the public and private sectors.
He said, “We need a broader national conversation about this issue, so everyone has a shared understanding of the threat, and a sense of ownership about the solution.”
80 MPs voted in favour of the establishment of the committee at the end of the debate.