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Fake News or Political Suppression? Singapore Fake News Bill Blurs the Line

man reading the news in Chinatown, Singapore (Photo: digitalpimp)
man reading the news in Chinatown, Singapore (Photo: digitalpimp)

“This legislation deals with false statements of facts. It doesn’t deal with opinions, it doesn’t deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable….”

Singapore introduced a drastic anti-fake news bill on Monday called Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation to block the spread of fake news online amid free speech activists’ concerns the new legislation will impede press freedom.

The bill would order social media platforms such as Facebook to delete comments against the “public interest” and put warnings on posts the government deems misleading or false. Additionally, the bill would impose jail time on “malicious actors” and shut down a site’s ability to profit if it had too many violations.

Singapore’s Minister of Transportation, Communication, and Information Janil Puthucheary said widespread false news is a national threat, adding that many Singaporeans are too confident they can distinguish between real and fake information.

Activists Worry New Legislation Will Harm Press Freedom

Singapore’s new law faces opposition from rights activists who voiced concern the bill will hinder freedom of speech despite the government’s assurance that the law will not harm press freedom.

“This legislation deals with false statements of facts. It doesn’t deal with opinions, it doesn’t deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable,” said Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam.

According to a draft of the bill, the government would jail and impose sanctions on “malicious actors” who spread false information to “undermine society”. The law would also slash an online site’s profit if it publishes three false news pieces that are “against the public interest” in six months. However, the regulation does not elaborate on how the government would block a site’s profit.

Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said that the definition of “falsehood” is subjective and broad, depending on the perspective of the government.

“The definitions in the law are broad and poorly defined, leaving maximum regulatory discretion to the government officers skewed to view as ‘misleading’ or ‘false’ the sorts of news that challenge Singapore’s preferred political narratives,” Robertson told Al Jazeera.

Robertson also added that the proposed bill is a dangerous threat to press freedom and freedom of expression. Singapore’s press freedom index is ranked 151 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, worse than that of Myanmar and Russia.

The report “Digital in 2017” showed that seven in 10 Singaporeans were active in social media.  Based on reports from the Oxford University and Reuters Institute, three-fourths of the country’s 5.6 million people access news via their smartphones, leading to the potential for the uncontrolled spread of “fake news.”

How Do Other Countries Tackle Fake News and Hoaxes?

Germany

Berlin has a regulation called the Network Enforcement Act that requires social media channels to delete content deemed illegal by the country’s local governments. The removal of illegal content must be carried out 24 hours after the upload.

Malaysia

Singapore’s neighbor once also issued an anti-hoax law, but later the Mahathir Mohamad administration revoked it since it was considered to be oppressing any government critics. Malaysia later created a fact-checking site called www.sebenarnya.my.

The US

Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election prompted several countries to produce anti-hate speech and fake news regulations, given allegations that the unexpected victory of Donald Trump as President was linked with widespread false information on social media.

In October 2017 U.S. Congress issued a law that required tech giants such as Facebook and Google to make public their copies of ads and who paid for them. The bill regulates how TV and radio stations advertise on social media.

The state of California enacted its own bill that boosts media literacy in public schools, requiring the Department of Education to provide materials and resources on how to determine the credibility of media. A Stanford University study inspired the bill when it discovered that students struggle to differentiate between news pieces and sponsored content online or discern where information was coming from.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Indonesia

Indonesia uses the 2008 law on Electronic Information and Transaction (UU ITE) to punish anyone who spreads hate speech and fake information. A person caught spreading fake news or hoaxes is subject to a six-year imprisonment or Rp 1 billion fine.

As the country nears its April 17 presidential election, related stakeholders are all hands on deck trying to block the massive spread of misleading information on social media. According to Ismail Cawidu, spokesperson at the Ministry of Communication and Information, fake news related to social and political issues accounts for 91.8 percent of the news.

Canada

The Canadian government produces a curriculum related to media literacy. School-aged children are taught to distinguish between credible and misleading information. Italy and Taiwan adopted a similar program.

How to Detect Fake News

As the internet grows and people become increasingly connected, obtaining and sharing information across the world with the click of a button is easier than ever. However, as technology improves it also becomes easier to create and spread fake news. Artificial intelligence can now create videos that mimic unique human mannerisms, meaning one day you could be watching a politician giving a speech without realizing the entire video is a fake.

Here are some tips for identifying whether information is credible or not:

Check the Source

Where is the information from? Is it from an official government website or somewhere else? Use a search engine to find out the source of the news piece or articles. How does the source present its information? Is it thoughtful and intelligent or is it sensationalized and seem mostly motivated to provoke a strong emotional response in the hopes of increasing shares or ad clicks?

Look at the Date

This is often accidental but happens a lot. Sometimes old information is widely circulated without people realizing the article isn’t current. When someone shares something on social media, people assume it’s recent and often share an article without reading it or checking the date.

Is Information Biased?

This is an important one. Human beings, not robots, write articles and human beings are inherently biased even when they attempt not to be. But some news articles are purposefully or neglectfully biased.

Be critical when reading and ask yourself does the information only explain one side of an issue or appear to support or oppose certain political views? Some news articles are meant to be biased and meant to present an argument but they should be labeled as opinion or editorial pieces.

Check the Writer’s Credibility

This can be tricky because a writer’s credibility alone doesn’t mean an article is trustworthy. Over the years, even major news sites have gone through scandals when it turned out a writer was fabricating stories. Plus many new sites are popping up with young, talented and passionate writers but who lack the backing of mainstream media.

Still, getting an overall feel for a writer’s experience and their work can be helpful to determine an article’s credibility. Do their articles mostly look to incite aggression or anger people or do they take a more thoughtful approach? Perhaps most importantly do they source their information? Are they linking back to the sources they get their information from and how credible are the sources they are using?

Check Pictures

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a photo to circulate across the world before it’s discovered the photo is of a different incident or from an earlier time period. Recently, a photo of Venezuelan bridge blockade was circulated as proof Maduro was refusing U.S. humanitarian aid, but later it came out the bridge had been closed down for years.

To help verify an image you can conduct a Google image search to see where the image has been used in the past. To do so, go to images.google.com and drag the image into the search bar. Google will give you all the results where the image has been used previously, if ever.

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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