The former president of the United States, Barack Obama said that he agrees that Governments play a role in arresting the spread of fake news, but they should not be the sole arbiters in determining what’s false.
The 44th US President was responding to a question on who should be determining what is false, during a moderated dialogue session at the charity gala organised by Novena Global Lifecare healthcare and aesthetics group, held at Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore on Saturday (14 December).
As a reply, Mr Obama who was the keynote speaker of the event, gave China as an example, and said the Government makes the call.
However, he added that he is uncomfortable in having just the Government to make such decisions. This is because he felt that it could lead to fewer checks and balances.
He said, “In any country, if the government’s the only one that is deciding what is true and what is not, that’s dangerous. Because, let’s face it, those who are in power tend to want to look good, that’s human nature,”
He continued, “And so then you reduce checks and balances over time.”
Although he acknowledged that this is a challenge, but he suggested that the judiciary and other relevant independent organisations should also have a say in determining what is true or false.
“They key is for us to recognise this is a genuine problem,” he said.
Media companies must play their part
Speaking of social media companies, Mr Obama said that they should also play an editorial role in picking the kind of information that should be prioritised and what people see.
Therefore, these companies have to take responsibility as media companies, to stop the spread of fake news, instead of insisting that they are just channels of information akin to utilities companies, he said.
Mr Obama also highlighted that how other countries around the world, including Singapore, have attempted to deal with the issue of fake news, by exploring if labels can be applied to get rid of blatant untruths.
POFMA in Singapore
In Singapore, the highly controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) took effect in October this year as a way to combat the spread of false and/or misleading information online.
Some of the measures that the Bill covers include empower government ministers to issue correction direction or, in more serious cases, take-down orders. As such, concerns were raised about the amount of power bestowed to the Government in deciding what is true or false.
However, the Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in April 2019 that: “(The) court decides ultimately what is true and what is false and they will be the final arbiters. That is how issues ought to be decided.”
He added, “So it is completely not true to say: ‘Oh, all sorts of opinions will be caught or free speech will be affected or I cannot express viewpoints’, nor is it true to say that Government is going to decide what I can say and what I cannot say.”
However, he did mention that the Government will be the one who will make the first decision in deciding if a statement is wrong or true.
Currently, any minister is empowered to declare a statement as misleading or a false statement of fact and issue a correction order or take-down for that particular statement. The order can be challenged by the affected party by first appealing to the minister who issued the order. Once the minister rejects the appeal, the challenge can be brought to the High Court to either vary or cancel the order.
According to the provisions in POFMA, the High Court can only decide whether the statement declared by a minister to be false is, in fact, false. The Court cannot judge on whether the minister’s original declaration and/or order of removal was made ‘in the public interest’ as the law outlines.
So far, four correction orders have been made by ministers of different ministries on dated social-political content within the last two months.