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 speech 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 movement.
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 researcher 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 world.
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.