Facebook caught in crossfire of Singapore’s ‘fake news’ law

The Facebook logo and binary cyber codes are seen in this illustration taken November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The Singaporean government on Nov 29 again invoked its recently enacted "fake news” law, this time ordering Facebook Inc to publish a correction notice on a post made by an anti-government blog.

In the third such order in a week, an arm of the Ministry of Communications and Information instructed Facebook to correct a States Times Review post accused of using falsehoods to criticise the ruling People’s Action Party. The government had previously denounced the report, that police arrested a government whistleblower and taken down information that exposed a plot to turn the affluent city into a Christian state.

Singapore introduced its controversial fake-news law as it prepares to hold general elections by April 2021, though the ruling party has called for early polls in recent cycles. Officials, including Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, have openly questioned the ability of Internet companies to handle widespread misinformation – a growing scourge of elections around the world. But critics worry the new legislation can be used to clamp down on free speech. A Facebook representative acknowledged it has received the government request but declined further comment.

The order "requires Facebook to publish a correction notice”, the ministry arm, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Office, said in a statement. It "has also commenced investigations against Mr Tan for failing to comply” with the Nov 28 order.

The agency issued its statement following what it called "non-compliance” of a government order on Nov 28 directed at author Alex Tan. According to a government clarification, Tan’s post dated Nov 23 made a number of false assertions. "These claims are false and baseless," the clarification read. "The STR also has made scurrilous accusations against the Elections Department, the Prime Minister, and the election process in Singapore.”

Tan, who runs the States Times Review Facebook page from his home in Sydney, said he was never notified of the government order, but issued a clarification on Nov 28 after being told of the matter by a friend. The post’s edit history shows the clarification was added at 1.19pm on Nov 28.

"Technically speaking, I fulfilled what they wanted,” the 32-year-old said by phone. "If you ask me, I think the government is testing their new powers, so basically this would be a good case study.”

Singapore is just one of many nations grappling with how to respond to propaganda and false information online. With general elections just around the corner in the city-state, the leader of a new opposition party worries the law could be used to muzzle dissent, though ministers have said legislation is needed to deal with the spread of misinformation that could undermine free speech.

After coming into force last month, the so-called POFMA office invoked its anti-‘fake news’ law for the first time last week at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. In that case, the government directed opposition party member Brad Bowyer to include a correction notice in a Facebook post on the government’s involvement in investment decisions by Temasek Holdings Pte and GIC Pte, as well as Keppel Corp.’s finances.

Bowyer has since obliged while also including a link to a 15-point statement on a government website detailing what it deemed "false statements of fact and misleading statements” in his original post. – Bloomberg

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