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Singapore vows to stamp out ‘fake news’ with new law

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Singapore has become one of the first countries to introduce legislation to combat fake news, introducing a law which forces websites to correct, flag up or remove fake news.

Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the plans yesterday and the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’ was introduced in parliament today.

The regulation was recommended by a select committee in September 2018, which found that the state had been targeted by “hostile information campaigns”. The committee recommended that regulations be put in place to limit misinformation, with measures effective within hours to prevent its viral spread. The committee also called for a framework for improving media literacy – including a more expansive approach in teaching how to identify misinformation in schools – and stated that technology companies must be more transparent and accountable, such as by disclosing ad sponsors and closing accounts dedicated to spreading fake news.

Once the bill is enshrined in law, the Singapore government will be able to hold online news sources and platforms legally accountable if they fail to stop fake news spreading.

“We are open and English speaking, our mobile and internet penetration rate is high and being a multiracial, multi-ethnic society, we have enduring fault lines that can be easily exploited,” said Lee, during a televised speech. “If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society.”

“This includes requiring [the platforms] to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter. In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done.”

Lee added that the regulation must be complemented by Singaporeans being wary of fake news and in a good position to assess what they read and hear: “Spotting fake news is easier said than done. In general, people are overconfident about their ability.”

Today, law and home affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam addressed parliament, stating that online hate speech – particularly with regards to race and religion – had been amplified by social media. As social media platforms have not taken serious responsibility for the content, the government would have to step in, he said.

While many other countries are considering legislative action to stifle the spread of fake news online, the introduction of the bill is likely to cause concern that the one-party state could expand its control to information online, much like similar measures introduced in Vietnam. NGO Freedom House classifies the Singaporean press as “not free” and the internet as “partly free” in the city state, while Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151 out of 180 in its most recent Press Freedom Index.

Following a prolonged refusal to cooperate with legislators to acknowledge and combat the problem of hate speech and misinformation on his platforms – including declining an invitation to answer questions from an ‘International Grand Committee on Disinformation’ – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly endorsed government regulation of social media in an opinion column published in the Washington Post. The social media giant announced last year that it would build a $1bn data centre in Singapore.

A Lancaster University study published last week found that there are strong similarities between fake news articles and April Fools hoax news articles. The study, which used natural-language processing to assess the articles, found that the satirical and deceptive articles shared many similar features, such as longer sentences and less complex language than legitimate news.

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