Singapore Government setting up Committee to study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods

Singapore Government setting up Committee to study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods

The Singapore Government is asking the Parliament to appoint
a Select Committee to study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods and to
recommend how Singapore should respond. Minister for Law, Mr. K. Shanmugam, delivered
the motion
in the Parliament today. (Select
Committees are committees of MPs which are created by Parliament. This
particular Committee will have
8 Govt
MPs, 1 Opposition MP and 1 Nominated Member of Parliament.

The Ministry of Communications and Information and the
Ministry of Law issued a Green Paper on January 8, titled “Deliberate
Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications
”, setting out the reasons
for appointing the Select Committee.

The Paper notes that falsehoods are being deliberately
spread online, to attack public institutions and individuals, with the aim of
sowing discord amongst racial and religious communities, exploiting
fault-lines, undermining public institutions, interfering in elections and
other democratic processes, and weakening countries.

While digital technologies have been extremely positive
enablers, for example, allowing people to connect, receive and share
information with others from all around the world, these technologies have also
been abused.

For instance, bots are being used to spread spam and online
falsehoods on social media networks. Through sheer volume, they can create a
false impression of public support for, or relevance to, a particular story or

Falsehoods can also spread through search engines, email
chains, direct links to websites and instant messaging. The paper cites an article
by a journalism Professor and
suggesting that during the 2016 United States (US) Presidential
Election, 40% of web traffic for false and “hyper-biased” news on websites
carrying online falsehoods actually came through technologies other than social
media (direct website visits, P2P shares, text/instant messaging, subscription
e-newsletters, RSS, and search engines).

Various strategies have been used to help online falsehoods
gain traction, such as co-ordinated re-posting and exploiting existing racial,
religious or political rifts in society through Facebook pages/ groups.

Another strategy adopted by the miscreants has been to share
as many conflicting messages as possible. This is to try and get people to
conclude that there are so many different interpretations of events, that it is
not possible to determine the truth.

Governments, experts and the media have identified two types
of actors: private individuals and entities, and foreign State actors. While state
actors appear to have wanted to engineer specific outcomes in elections, and
referenda, private actors seem to have been more motivated by
financial considerations
. Posts or news articles with sensational and
shocking headlines and with little or no factual basis were circulated for
views and clicks.

Such incidents affect democratic processes and governance.
They can also erode trust and cohesion in a society.

The paper goes through a long list of such examples from the
US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Indonesia and takes note of steps
being taken by some countries and technology companies to address the problem.

According to the paper, Singapore is both an attractive
target, and highly susceptible to the deliberate spread of online falsehoods.
Because it is one of the most open and globally connected countries in the
world. More goods, services, finance, people, and data flow into and through
Singapore than most countries.

Moreover, Singaporeans are well connected to the rest of the
world, including through the latest digital technology. Most Singaporeans – 91%
of Singaporean households and 84% of Singaporeans – have Internet access.
Majority, 53% of Singaporeans, get their main source of news online (including
through social media). Singapore is also a multi-lingual society and is
therefore open to messages targeted at particular segments of society, by using
specific languages and channels. Singapore is also a vulnerable target because it
is a multi-racial and one of the most religiously diverse societies in the

Singapore has strict rules against foreign interference in its
politics and the paper says that the same rules should apply to cyberspace.

Based on the above, the Committee will study the phenomenon of
using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online; motivations
and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals
and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity; the
consequences on Singapore society, and how Singapore can prevent and combat
online falsehoods, including guiding principles for the response and specific measures,
such as legislation.

The public will be invited to make submissions to the Select
Committee on these issues. The Select Committee can also hold public hearings,
to engage in-depth with witnesses on key issues. The Committee will report to the
Parliament with its recommendations after considering the evidence. The recommendations
will be made public.