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Source: CNA.

Law on “fake news” could be used as a tool to persecute voices contrary to what the ruling party allows

by James Lee

I have been following the recent updates coming out of Parliament on the Select Committee on fake news. This committee was formed with the intention to seek public opinion on how Singapore can prevent and combat deliberate online falsehoods (DOF) and whether any measures, including legislation, that should be taken.

The terms of reference are set out below:

The Select Committee's terms of reference are to examine and report on:

(a) the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online;
(b) the motivations and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity;
(c) the consequences that the spread of online falsehoods can have on Singapore society, including to our institutions and democratic processes; and
(d) how Singapore can prevent and combat online falsehoods, including:
(i) the principles that should guide Singapore's response; and
(ii) any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken.

However, the proceedings over the past few days seem to have (d)evolved into a court proceeding with our Law Minister interrogating representatives from the tech companies in a manner to elicit certain responses from them. I am not sure if this is aligned to the original intention of the terms of reference laid out but it seems to the common man to be a betrayal of that original intent. Kirsten Han succinctly described it in her blog.

Betrayal aside, I am of the opinion that DOF or fake news is nothing new. This tactic of creating fake or false information is as old as humans the moment we discovered that we can lie. It is even aptly described in Sun Tzu's Art of War and described it as misinformation. This is something every military intelligence commander knows, hence we always verify the source and reliability of the information. It is a well known tactic to create false information for the purposes of deceiving the enemy For something that has survived ages and even made it into a famed book on military tactics, it is therefore surprising that the government is even attempting to draft a law on it. The irony of it is not lost on me if a widely accepted military strategy is now outlawed because we have a law against DOF or fake news.

Having said that, I am more concerned about the stance of the government on this matter. That seems to be pro-legislation, and in the fastest time possible. I agree with the Facebook representative, Simon Milner (and in fact every person that has been subjected to the grilling by the Select Committee), that legislation on DOF is not a straightforward thing and the government should not rush into drafting a law without consultation from all stakeholders. This, coupled with another (unrelated) news of the Films Act amendment bill which was passed in Parliament on 21 March.

These two (seemingly unrelated) cases seem to portray a very heavy handed stance by the government in dealing with DOF for the purposes of dealing with films with political messages. I SUSPECT, and it is a purely speculative suspicion that this is being bulldozed out so that legislation would be in place before the next General Election, which would be due in 2020. The timing of this all just seems too coincidental to me. It is possible that the law on delibrate online falsehoods, if came to pass, could be used as a tool to persecute voices contrary to what the ruling party allows.

If it is indeed true that the legislation is being forced out for the purposes of having a means to deal with news that the government interprets as DOF, and especially from voices of the opposition, then my guess would be that it would backfire in an extremely spectacular way. Singaporeans are no longer that apathetic as we thought we were.

I would have hoped the Select Committee stay true to their terms of reference for the hearings on DOF and exercise caution in bulldozing out a law against DOF without consulting all stakeholders and all angles. If the hearings of the Select Committee are anything to go by for the past few days, it seems to have failed in its purpose as public consultation.