“Extreme use” of legislative means such as POFMA to combat misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines not always necessary unless warranted by “circumstances”, says S Iswaran

“Extreme use” of legislative means such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to combat misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines is not always necessary unless warranted by “circumstances”, said Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran on Tuesday (2 February).

Mr Iswaran was responding to a question from the Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) He Ting Ru on whether the POFMA Office is taking any measures to deal with misinformation over COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.

Ms He also asked about how the Government is ensuring that such measures, if any, will not result in a chilling effect on those who raise legitimate concerns regarding vaccine-related issues.

Mr Iswaran said that the Government has at its disposal measures such as public communications to legislative means such as POFMA, adding that public education is crucial in the Government’s efforts to “strengthen our resilience against vaccine misinformation”.

This will enable Singaporeans to “make informed decisions for the safety and health of themselves, their loved ones and the community”, he said.

The Government, said Mr Iswaran, regularly conveys information and clarifications on vaccines and COVID-19 through its websites such as gov.sg, direct messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram, and social media platforms.

“Over the past few weeks, vaccination information has been conveyed through print and broadcast interviews, as well as social media, direct messaging platforms, and gov.sg,” he said.

Local media, Mr Iswaran added, have also published articles and Frequently Asked Questions columns to address concerns and questions on vaccines.

The Government, he said, has worked with major tech companies to ensure that “authoritative sources, including the Ministry of Health’s website, are prominently included on their platforms”.

Touching on the vaccination programme for seniors, Mr Iswaran noted that community volunteers from the People’s Association as well as the Silver Generation ambassadors have been embarking on house visits to address elderly residents’ queries about the programme.

The Government, said Mr Iswaran, is also actively monitoring for vaccine-related misinformation and will not hesitate to “use the full force of the law” where there is cause for action.

“We should check that the information we receive comes from reliable sources. Make the effort to verify before sharing, and not share unverified information,” he stressed.

Jamus Lim, Ms He’s fellow Sengkang GRC MP, in a supplementary question posited if “some benefit of the doubt” may be given to individuals who may “unwittingly sharing disinformation”, especially elderly people who may be sharing out of “individual scepticism”.

Mr Iswaran replied that the Government deploys a “range of possibilities” in its response to misinformation, from public education to targeted efforts to clarify certain points on government websites and other channels.

The Government, he said, does not need to always resort to extreme use of legislative means “unless it is warranted by the circumstances”.

“We have found that engagement with relevant parties has sufficed to clarify the matter and correct the misinformation,” said Mr Iswaran, referencing the scenario cited by Dr Lim in his question.

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