What happens when an authoritarian-minded government with abysmal freedom of press rankings enters the growing global debate about social media regulation and the need to curb disinformation?
Not much good, according to human rights groups and civil society activists in Singapore, the Asian nation that has become the latest country on track to pass a law about fake news.
The new bill before the Singaporean parliament, described by the Asia Internet Coalition as the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date,” embodies all the worries voiced by academics, lawyers and democracy activists in other countries. As consensus builds that social media needs some kind of external oversight in the wake of scandals such as Russian manipulation of Facebook in the U.S. elections and disinformation leading to mob violence in India — Singapore raises a thorny question of what kind of regulation is enough to preserve democracy from disinformation, and when does government intervention hinder democracy even more?
Singapore’s draft law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, tabled at the beginning of April, proposes sweeping powers for government ministers to demand corrections, the removal of content and the censoring of websites and social media pages if the official decides that the offending content is “false or misleading, whether wholly or in part”, and that it’s in the public interest to do so.
Ministers do not require any judicial review before issuing an order to block an online site or platform, meaning that the definition of fake news becomes the personal decision of Singapore’s regime. The concept of “public interest” is very broad, spanning from securing “public tranquility,” to preserving “friendly relations” between Singapore and other countries and preventing “a diminution of public confidence” in the government or state organs. Refusal to comply with directives can result in fines and jail terms of up to 12 months for individuals, or fines of up to $1 million Singaporean dollars for platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
Singapore’s tiny opposition movement and independent media believe that the law isn’t intended to target disinformation, but rather their critical voices in a strict law-and-order state.
The bill allows for appeal to the High Court to get the ban overturned, but journalists and publishers say the check on power is meaningless because their businesses would almost certainly die during such a lengthy legal process. A media outlet penalized three times in six months could be banned from generating revenue through advertisements or subscriptions.
“As a site that relies heavily on advertising and donor support, the bill is a killer,” said Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen, currently Singapore’s oldest independent news website.
His fears aren’t fanciful; Xu is already facing charges for criminal defamation for publishing a letter from a reader that referred to “multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.” The author of the letter is facing similar charges.
When the Singapore government unveiled the bill on April 1, it sought to frame the legislation simply as part of a trend of mature democracies attempting to regulate social media.
“Singapore is not the only one which has taken legislation on this issue,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told journalists. “The French have done so, the Germans have done so. The Australians have just done so, something similar and very draconian. The British are also thinking of doing this as well. So Singapore had to do this and we had a long process,” said Lee. “Finally we have this bill and it will be debated in the house and I hope eventually it will become legislation.”
Regulations in other nations have triggered controversy in their respective countries. But, unlike Singapore, each of these nations is having a robust debate about the pros and cons the laws have on democracy.
Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, better known as NetzDG, was passed in 2017 and applies to social media platforms with over 2 million users, requiring them to check complaints and remove illegal content within seven days, or “manifestly unlawful” content without 24 hours. An unintended consequence is that far-right groups have built political capital with claims of victimhood.
A year later, the French passed a law that allows candidates and political parties to apply to a judge to get “false information” removed, raising concerns of censorship as social media platforms err on the side of legal caution and take down non-fake news.
Following the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Australian Parliament pushed through a law that requires content service providers to notify the authorities and swiftly remove violent content on their platforms. Some have criticized the law as being too rushed for proper consultation.
Earlier this month, the British government released the Online Harms White Paper, outlining its plans to hold tech companies accountable for harmful content on their platforms. In it, the government proposes establishing a “a new statutory duty of care” that would require companies to “tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.” The government has a mandatory time period for interested groups and citizens to respond to the policy before it moves to parliament.
In Singapore, consultation was perfunctory at best. Last year, Parliament convened the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, ostensibly to solicit public feedback. The hearings were criticized by civil society groups as “hardly open or consultative.” There has been no public consultation since the bill was made public.
Social media in Singapore hasn’t been viewed with the same urgent concern as it has in Myanmar, where Facebook has seen its reputation plummet for failing to act against pages believed to have whipped up violence against the Rohingya minority. In the Philippines, independent news website Rappler has been sounding the alarm about the use of troll armies to drive misinformation campaigns to the benefit of the country’s president.
Singapore’s bill — which is likely to pass as the ruling party controls 82 of the 100 seats in parliament — comes in sharp contrast with what’s happening in neighboring Malaysia, where a new government is seeking to repeal its own so-called Anti-Fake News Law, which was rammed through parliament by the former ruling coalition. The Malaysian parliament has voted to repeal the law — which sets out harsh penalties for reporting “wholly or partly false news” — but the opposition-held Senate blocked the move, sending it back to the lower house for another vote.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says his nation needs to find a different solution to fake news, one that doesn’t involve trampling free speech. “When we have laws that prevent people from airing their views, then we are afraid the government may abuse the law, as it has happened in the last government,” he said during a joint press conference with his Singaporean counterpart in April.
Other Southeast Asian countries might fall more on Singapore’s side than Malaysia’s. The Cambodian government has claimed to be fighting “fake news” alongside crackdowns on independent news outlets, while cybersecurity laws that allow the government to compel companies to remove content have come into force in Vietnam.
This leaves free speech and democracy advocates in the region fearful that rather than help democratic societies — which is what European nations are trying to legislate — the new Asian anti fake-news trend will end up weakening such institutions in this region.
“Without a doubt the Bill [in Singapore] ups the ante for repression across the region, where the number of legislation intended to stifle dissent is rising at an alarming rate, and where there is clearly no letup in state crackdowns on the media and other independent voices, using every means possible to achieve their sinister ends,” says Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.