On 19 June, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam announced that new laws to combat fake news will likely be introduced next year. According to him, Singapore officials paid visits to Germany and the UK in an effort to shape the new laws.
In April this year, Germany unveiled a draft bill aimed at countering fake news on social media. The proposed bill came after the avalanche of fake news during last year’s US Presidential Elections.
There have also been incidents of a few fake news reports within Germany, which were seemingly aimed at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open policy towards refugees. Hate speech and such fake news have been cited as an important reason for the rise of violence by far-right supporters in Germany, such as arson attacks at refugee centres and assault on police officers.
According to the German bill, companies would have to remove specific social media content within a stipulated time frame, depending on how obviously false or illegal a post is. Social media companies would be forced to pay up to €50 million (SGD 78.8 million) if they fail to remove hate speech and false content in time. The individual responsible for the company will also face a fine of up to €5 million (SGD 7.88 million).
In Britain, a parliamentary committee has also been deliberating new laws to hold social networks responsible for inappropriate content.
However, critics of the German bill attacked its broad nature and worried about the risk of censorship because of the bill’s ambiguity. Facebook has also criticised the bill for its “disproportionate threat of fines”, as it will encourage social media networks to delete content that may not be clearly illegal out of fear for the hefty fines.
In Czech Republic, a new government unit (Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats) was formed earlier this year to tackle fake news. Specialists within the unit sieve through the Internet and social media and alert the public of any false information via a Twitter account and the ministry website. The unit also trains civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.
Evidence has shown that online disinformation is influencing public opinion, which has the potential to destabilise the country’s political system. With this concern in mind, the new government unit aims to counter falsehood in the face of their forthcoming general election.
However, the new unit has also faced accusations of encouraging censorship. Some also fear that this new measure will result in spying and a crackdown on free speech.
Officials of the unit have rebutted such worries by citing the exigency of combatting fake news in Czech Republic. According to an official, “disinformation campaigns are trying to radicalize society… and to a certain degree it’s working”.
As seen in the cases of Germany and Czech Republic, government policies aimed at countering fake news have faced similar worries about the slippery regression to censorship in democratic systems.
As the Singaporean government tries to figure out the best way to tackle fake news, one thing they should consider is how to strike the right balance between curbing the proliferation of fake news while at the same time not lapse into oppressive censorship.
In the meantime, Singaporeans just have to be more discerning of what they read on the Internet, and not be easily riled up over dubious (mis)information.