Fighting Fake News Without Destroying Freedom of Speech – Lessons from Singapore

Introduction

Fake news dissemination is the plague of modern society. It interferes with elections, raises fears and inflames conflicts. There is no doubt that society should adopt measures to mitigate the damaging effects of its spread. Many countries have attempted to address the issue of online disinformation; however, it appears that policymakers are failing to adequately confront this challenge. Most anti-fake news laws are assailed as forms of censorship that attempt to suppress opposition. Is it possible to create anti-fake news legislation without infringing upon freedom of speech? 

In this article, I will summarize the key points of one of the world’s most infamous anti-fake news laws, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill. I will then illustrate and explain the reasons for the controversy surrounding it. Finally, I will address possible alternatives to combat fake news that avoid the pitfalls of Singapore’s law. 

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill claims to address only false representations of facts that harm the public interest. Public interests are defined as security, foreign relations, electoral integrity and public perception of the government and state institutions. The legislation grants government Ministers the authority to initiate legal action against any statement they recognize as fake news. The Bill outlines the following permissible actions against the dissemination of fake news: the government can demand a correction of the falsehood; pursue criminal action against the individuals accused of spreading false information; disable fake online accounts or bots that spread falsehoods; and require social media sites to display warnings on posts the government deems false and remove comments that harm the public interest. The penalty for spreading online falsehoods is up to S$ 1 million ($737,500) and 10 years in prison.

Critiques of the Bill 

The Bill was widely criticised by human rights groups and other organizations. I will focus particularly on the critique concerning the infringement of freedom of speech. Amnesty International accuses the legislation of being a tool to prevent critique of the government. Opposition groups publishing reports that emphasize the government’s flaws may be charged with threatening the public interest and thus prosecuted on the basis of the Bill. Singapore’s government counters Amnesty’s accusation by pointing out that the legislation targets factual statements, not opinions. Therefore, individuals publishing their negative views regarding the government’s actions and policies fall outside the legislation’s remit. Nevertheless, the difference between the statement of fact and opinion is not always obvious. Additionally, Ministers have the authority to deem any given statement a falsehood, thus posing a major threat to the freedom of speech of their prospective critics.

The Bill also infringes upon freedom of speech by raising the prospect of self-censorship. Faced with the threat of prosecution and high fines, Singaporean citizens will likely be less inclined to publish or post any content that may be interpreted as critical of the government or its Ministers. Furthermore, the Bill’s provision that social media platforms must remove or flag content that is identified as either ‘fake’ or ‘classified’ has drawn criticisms from Google, which has voiced concerns that this aspect will hinder the growth of the digital information ecosystem. 

Through further analysis of this critique, it becomes evident that the criticisms levied against this Bill center around the argument that the law grants too much power to the executive branch.

Possible Improvements and Alternative Solutions

Upon examination of the shortcomings of Singapore’s anti-fake news Bill, it becomes clear that introducing a division of powers between the executive and judicial branches may aid in upholding freedom of speech on one hand and regulating the spread of fake news on the other. With a division of power, independent judges, rather than the government, would decide what counts as a ‘falsehood’ as defined by the Bill. This would remove the prospect of Ministers abusing their authority to prosecute their critics. 

An arrangement with power split between the executive and judicial branches already exists in France. According to the French law, in the three months preceding national elections, prosecutors, parties, or individuals involved may bring a fake news case before a judge, who will decide on the veracity or falsehood of the content involved and order measures to halt the spread of any information deemed false.

Another potential solution to this dilemma is to further democratize the process by replacing top-down legislation with a civil society empowered by the newest technologies. Lithuania is implementing an interesting solution along these lines, using a software called Demaskuok to detect online falsehoods. The process consists of two stages. Firstly, an algorithm analyses Internet content and flags items with a high likelihood of being fake. The users of Demaskouk subsequently verify whether the information is indeed false. Users include members of Lithuania’s foreign ministry, news outlets, think tanks, universities, and volunteers. Upon identification of a falsehood, a report is generated and sent to newsrooms and other organizations, who then debunk the false information in mainstream media. This approach manages to avoid the problems posed by Singapore’s legislation by enabling algorithmic objectivity and human scrutiny to complement one another. 

Critics maintain that algorithms are not necessarily objective; indeed, it is often the case that they have bias embedded in their code. The advantage of Demaskuok is that the criteria of the algorithm are transparent. These include the theme of the news, the presence of vocabulary likely to provoke outrage, virality, timing and sources of pictures used. If this fails to prevent algorithm from being biased, there is a second stage of exposing fake news: human review. People from diverse groups must gauge whether or not a given piece of information is false, thus hedging against potential algorithmic errors.

Thus, the combined use of an algorithm and widespread human review, rather than reliance upon government Ministers, helps limit political bias in detecting potential falsehoods; information will not be flagged as ‘fake’ simply because it criticizes the government. Additionally, this approach promotes critical thinking among the public and, most importantly, does not pose a threat to freedom of speech.

In summary, the lessons from Singapore reveal that granting one authority too much power in the process of identifying and combating fake news risks censorship and generates distrust in the system. Rather, this process should be decentralized, as this enables multiple perspectives to balance each other out and freedom of speech to remain intact. 

Patrycja Jasiurska

Patrycja Jasiurska is the Researcher for the Technology and Innovation policy centre.

 

Bibliography:

Amnesty International (2019) Singapore: Chilling fake news law will ‘rule the news feed’. Available from:https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/05/singapore-chilling-fake-news-law-will-rule-the-news-feed/ [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

Hao, K. (2019) This is how AI bias really happens—and why it’s so hard to fix. Technology Review. Available from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612876/this-is-how-ai-bias-really-happensand-why-its-so-hard-to-fix/ [Accessed on 19th November 2019].

Law Library of Congress (2019) Initiatives to Counter Fake News in Selected Countries. Available from: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/fake-news/counter-fake-news.pdf [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

Republic of Singapore Government Gazette (2019) PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOODS AND MANIPULATION ACT 2019. Available from: https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Acts-Supp/18-2019/Published/20190625?DocDate=20190625#pr48- [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

Today (2019) Google says Singapore’s fake news laws may hurt innovation. Today. Available from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/google-says-singapores-fake-news-laws-may-hurt-innovation  [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

The Economist (2019) Lithuanians are using software to fight back against fake news. The Economist. Available from: https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/10/24/lithuanians-are-using-software-to-fight-back-against-fake-news  [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

Ungku, F. (2019) Factbox: ‘Fake News’ laws around the world. Reuters. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-singapore-politics-fakenews-factbox/factbox-fake-news-laws-around-the-world-idUSKCN1RE0XN  [Accessed on 30th October 2019].

 

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