Singapore law minister on tackling fake news during coronavirus pandemic


Governments can tackle fake news during the coronavirus crisis by communicating regularly and promptly correcting misinformation, Singapore’s home affairs minister said. 

Security experts have warned that disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 are on the rise over the internet, as people’s fears and ignorance are being exploited.

Singapore is not immune. The government has been fighting fake news: from misinformation about its leaders contracting the coronavirus, to false reports of virus-related deaths and scammers trying to impersonate health officials to extract people’s personal and financial details.

“We are not the only place where fake information is circulating, but I would say there is far less here,” K. Shanmugam, who is also Singapore’s law minister, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday.

“You know the Singapore approach: We put out the clarification, we require the platform to carry what the true facts are and we saw a substantial reduction in the amount of fake news circulating,” Shanmugam said, adding that the presence of fake news is part and parcel of modern life. “You just have to accept it.” 

Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in October last year, which dictates websites have to run government “correction notices” alongside content it deems false. Under the law, the government will also be able to issue so-called “take down” orders that require the removal of content posted by social media companies, news organizations or individuals.

The Singapore skyline.

Everett Rosenfeld | CNBC

“Regular communication, I think, is one way of fighting this fake news,” Shanmugam said. “Second, when there is fake news that you can identify, point it out and make sure that people get to know that this is fake news. Do your best.”

For its part, Singapore’s health ministry puts out a daily report on its website detailing newly reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the status of existing patients over a 24-hour period. That information from the government is also disseminated via WhatsApp for people who’ve signed up to receive them.

Singapore’s fake news law

Shanmugam explained that when the fake news bill was being debated, tackling misinformation during a public health crisis was one of the scenarios being considered. He said in current times, fake news has been “industrialized” to sow confusion among the public and undermine society, through using modern means of communication. But the answer to countering fake news is not censorship, rather it’s to give more information, according to the law minister. 

Our point is, for those who believe in free speech, well this is more speech. You read the fake stuff, you read the true stuff, or what we say is the true stuff, and you make up your mind.

K. Shanmugam

Singapore’s minister for home affairs

Critics of Singapore’s fake news law have said the rule could be used to clamp down on the opposition parties — a charge that ministers of the city-state have repeatedly denied. For his part, Shanmugam said critics are not acknowledging the fact that misinformation is not taken down by the original poster.

“It’s on that platform, but the person who put it out has got to carry a correction to say that this is being considered to be false, and for the true facts go to such and such a place,” he said. “Our point is, for those who believe in free speech, well this is more speech. You read the fake stuff, you read the true stuff, or what we say is the true stuff, and you make up your mind.”

In February, the government ordered Facebook to block access in Singapore to a blog page on its social networking platform, Reuters reported. Singapore reasoned that the page, called States Times Review, repeatedly conveyed falsehoods and did not comply with directions it was served under the fake news law, according to Reuters. 

Facebook had said back then that orders like those were “disproportionate” and contradicted Singapore’s claim that the fake news law wouldn’t be used as a censorship tool, Reuters said.

Shanmugam said Facebook had been “behind the curve on fake news and has had to apologize a number of times.”

The tech giant did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for further comments. 


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