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Shanmugam: Law against fake news necessary because social media firms put profits first

"Let’s be frank, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), it’s really putting profit above principle,” said the Law and Home Affairs Minister

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Singapore—At a recent talk, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said having a law to tackle fake news online is necessary, since social media platforms are businesses that have to prioritise profits.

Mr Shanmugam made these remarks in a speech recorded last week and was broadcast on Tuesday (Jan 12) at the Reuters Next conference, reported the straitstimes.com.

The Jan 11 to 14 conference is a virtual forum featuring journalists and leaders from all over the world.

Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in May 2019, one of the most far-reaching laws against fake news online across the globe.

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Critics have said that POFMA is a threat to free speech.

But Mr Shanmugam said that having such a law is needful, because the online spaces wherein fake news is circulated have business models reliant on “attracting eyeballs”.

The Minister cited the example of the United States, wherein fake news was spread on social media cites before the riots in Washington DC on Jan 6.

He said, “The tendency has been on the side of the Internet platforms to say, ‘Hey, it’s free speech, there shouldn’t be any regulation of it.’

Let’s be frank, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), it’s really putting profit above principle.”

Through POFMA, “health warnings” are attached to fake news articles.  Twitter dealt with the tweets of US President Donald Trump in a similar way before he was eventually banned.

Mr Shanmugam said that what POFMA does is a “half-step” instead of a permanent ban.

“Many reasonable people say…the adding of labels to videos or even President Trump’s own statements are not good enough. They need to be taken down. That’s what’s being suggested – that a democratically elected leader of the United States, people are saying his account should be taken down.

POFMA is nothing like that,” he added.

The Minister added that a “consensus” is gaining strength in different countries and that depending on technology platforms to regulate online falsehoods is no longer enough, and that governments may need to step in with legislation.

“It’s got to be some authority, which is able to move quickly. And ultimately I suspect, the matter will have to be finally arbitrated through some sort of judicial process.

Different countries are trying to deal with it. I don’t think many countries have yet managed to get it to the legislative process. We have been one of those who have been able to get it done.”

POFMA has given ministers the authority to command social media sites to put warnings on posts that they deem to be false, or even take these posts down, if they find it necessary.

Should certain acts be deemed as injurious to the country’s interests as well as malicious, perpetrators could be jailed for as long as 10 years, and companies fined as much as S$1 million.

The Government has emphasized that POFMA’s aim is to protect the country from entities that would purposefully spread falsehoods and harm public interest and that posts containing satire, parody, and opinions do not fall under the new law’s purview.

Under POFMA, a false statement is one that is false or misleading, both taken as a whole and partially, standing alone or within its context.

/TISG

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