A parliamentary Select Committee has called for new laws that will grant the Singapore Government powers to swiftly disrupt the spread of online falsehoods, as part of a broad suite of measures to counter the scourge of fake news.
The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods made 22 recommendations in all, including enacting legislation, urging technology companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content on their platforms and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.
It submitted a 176-page report to Parliament on Wednesday (Sept 19), about five months after it held public hearings over eight days in March to listen to oral representations from 65 individuals and organisations.
The 10-member committee, chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong, was appointed in January to examine the phenomenon of deliberate online falsehoods and study what measures Singapore should take to prevent and combat the problem.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday (Sept 20), committee member and Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said deliberate online falsehoods are “a live and serious threat for Singapore that threatens our national security”.
"There is no one silver bullet to combat this complex problem, and a multi-pronged approach is necessary," the committee said in its report, which included its observations on the hearings.
It proposed a suite of short- and long-term measures, grouped in five broad areas, that would involve a range of parties, including technology companies, media organisations, community leaders and volunteers, as well as the Government.
Its recommendations are aimed at disrupting online falsehoods, nurturing an informed public, reinforcing social cohesion and trust, promoting fact checking and dealing with threats to national security and sovereignty.
In a joint statement on Thursday, the Law Ministry and Ministry of Communications and Information said the Government will study the report closely and work with stakeholders to roll out the non-legislative and legislative measures recommended by the committee over the next few months.
The Government acknowledged the “serious challenges and real risks” posed by deliberate online falsehoods, which include harming national security and inciting public unrest and violence. It also noted that the committee has made clear Singapore is not immune from this grave threat.
On disrupting online falsehoods, the committee said the Government should have the powers to limit or block the spread of fake news, and discredit the sources of such falsehoods.
Legislation will be needed to effectively disrupt the spread and influence of fake news, it stressed.
In recommending new laws - a move that observers had expected following the hearings - the committee did not go into the specifics of what form the new laws would take. Rather, it set out the principles that any new legislation should follow.
For instance, the measures will need to be effective in a matter of hours, to achieve the aim of stopping the falsehoods going viral. These measures could include take-down powers, blocking access, and tagging corrections and notifications.
The committee also urged the Government to consider laws that could cut off digital advertising revenue to those who spread online falsehoods, and impose criminal sanctions in serious cases, for instance, when falsehoods cause public disorder or election interference.
In a nod to concerns about legislative over-reach and stifling free speech, the committee noted the new laws should be calibrated, taking into account the context and circumstances of each case.
"It is also important that they be accompanied by checks and balances," the committee said, adding that adequate safeguards need to be put in place to ensure due process and the proper exercise of power.
It acknowledged that legislation has its limitations and needs to be accompanied by other measures.
To bring about a more informed public, the committee recommended creating a framework to guide efforts to improve media literacy among Singaporeans, as well as expanding the curriculum in schools to include the topic of disinformation.
It suggested that media organisations and industry partners consider establishing a fact-checking coalition to swiftly debunk fake news, and gave several ideas on ways to ensure accurate journalism.
Meanwhile, technology companies need to be more transparent and accountable, the committee said.
It recommended several steps they can take, including closing accounts that are designed to amplify online falsehoods, and banning the placement of ads on sites that spread fake news.
They should also disclose when content is sponsored, and by whom, as well as undertake regular voluntary reporting and independent audits, the committee said.
It added that the Government should consider both legislation and other forms of regulation to get tech companies to comply.
"Legislation would be needed particularly for measures to be taken in response to an online falsehood, since Facebook, Google and Twitter have a policy of generally not acting against content on the basis that it is false," it said.
The committee, which received 170 written representations, devoted the first half of its report to outlining the serious harm of deliberate online falsehoods, which can and have wreaked havoc.
Such falsehoods are a "unique phenomenon of an unprecedented scale", and can damage the social fabric of a nation and violate national sovereignty, it added.
Deliberate online falsehoods are a real and serious problem for the world, and Singapore, it concluded.
Mr Chong said the report was unanimously agreed upon by all 10 members of the committee.
Besides Mr Chong and Dr Janil, the other eight members are: Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Sun Xueling, Mr Seah Kian Peng, Ms Rahayu Mazam, Mr Pritam Singh from the Workers’ Party, and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong.