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Curbing Deliberate Online Falsehoods – A Step in the Right Direction?

As was aptly summarized in the Green Paper entitled “Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications” published by the Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Law, around the world falsehoods are being deliberately spread online, to attack public institutions and individuals, with the aim of sowing discord amongst racial and religious communities, exploiting fault-lines, undermining public institutions, interfering in elections as well as other democratic processes, and weakening countries. On 5th January 2018, the Ministry of Law announced that it would ask the Singapore Parliament to appoint a Select Committee to study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods, and to recommend how Singapore should respond.

Pursuant thereto the Parliament resolved to set up a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods – Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures (the ‘Committee’). The Committee held public hearings, and stakeholders gave evidence and also filed written representation. After extensive deliberation, the Committee recommended that a multi-pronged approach be adopted to tackle the problem. The Singapore Government has since accepted in-principle the Committee’s recommendations, and has rolled out the following legislative and non-legislative measures inter alia:

1. Nurture an informed public: Develop a national framework for information and media literacy; support ground-up campaigns.
2. Reinforce social cohesion and trust: Ensure timely communication of information to pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods through community networks; strengthen social cohesion and national resilience.
3. Disrupt online falsehoods : Enact legislation-
a. The Ministry of Law has tabled the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for First Reading in Parliament on 1st April 2019. This Bill seeks to protect society against damage from online falsehoods created by malicious actors. The salient features of the Bill are set out below:

i. The Bill defines a falsehood as a statement of fact that is false or misleading. Be that as it may, it does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody.
ii. Corrections will be the primary response to a harmful online falsehood that is actively spreading.
iii.The falsehood will not be removed; the facts will be put up alongside, so people can decide for themselves.
iv. Corrections are not criminal sanctions.
v. Criminal offences apply only to malicious actors. Only those who act to deliberately undermine society using falsehoods will be subject to the criminal offences.
vi. The Courts will have the final say on what is false. Any decision by the Government on what is false can be overridden by the Courts on appeal.
vii. The Bill provides for the taking down of falsehoods in serious cases, to stop harm to society.
viii. The Bill also provides for the disabling of inauthentic online accounts or bots that are spreading falsehoods against the public interest.
ix. Further, the Bill requires online platforms to keep their platforms safe and secure through the introduction of binding Codes of Practice.

b. For online falsehoods affecting private persons, amendments have been tabled to the Protection from Harassment Act (‘POHA’), to strengthen remedies and improve the speed of recourse.

It is left to be seen whether the said multi-pronged approach is a step in the right direction. Only time will tell as to whether the mechanisms are sufficiently robust to effectively curb the spread of deliberate online falsehoods.

By Denise Mirandah

This article first appeared in the GALA Gazette Vol 14, Issue 2. For more information, please visit https://www.galalaw.com/Publication/publication.