Oral Answer by Senior Minister of State for Law, Mr Edwin Tong to Parliamentary Question on Foreign Interference
Ms Cheng Li Hui (Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC)
To ask the Prime Minister (a) what can Singapore learn from the various incidences of foreign interferences in the elections and politics of countries such as the US, Australia, France and Germany; and (b) whether there is a need to introduce new laws or further strengthen existing laws to deal with foreign interference and Singaporeans who work with foreign actors to influence Singapore's elections and politics.
Mr Speaker, I am taking this question on behalf of the Prime Minister.
2 Members will agree that Singapore’s politics must be for Singaporeans alone to decide.
3 Worryingly, however, the Internet and social media have created a new, vast and easy playing field for foreign interference.
4 Among others, we have read about foreign interference in the politics of the United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Australia, France, Germany, Netherlands, and New Zealand. Clandestine and sophisticated tactics were used to fracture social cohesion, and influence election outcomes, through the spread of disinformation and half-truths, and exploitation of sensitive issues.
5 In the US, indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller lay out how a foreign hostile information campaign systematically and surreptitiously sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Elections.
6 More than two years before Election Day, a foreign organisation had started infiltrating American society. They used fake social media accounts pretending to be real Americans, and created social media groups on controversial issues likely to engage Americans. These accounts and groups gained influence over time, attracting thousands of real American followers. Social media posts by such fake foreign accounts even found their way into American mainstream media.
7 The foreign actor was sophisticated in its approach. It had researched the fault lines in American society and politics, and drove wedges along these lines. Its social media accounts spread falsehoods and false narratives on divisive socio-political issues such as race, LGBT rights, gun control and immigration.
8 The foreign actor used bots and digital advertisements to amplify its reach and viewpoints rapidly, to give the impression that they were popular. This built a false sense of reality: Americans felt that their views and concerns were echoed by others, without realising that much of the support was artificially generated by fake accounts. Researchers later found evidence that the foreign actor had targeted hotly contested states such as Wisconsin, Virginia and Pennsylvania, through Facebook advertising campaigns on divisive issues. For example, voters in Wisconsin saw more paid ads on guns and race issues, because these issues held more sway with them. Those with household incomes of less than US$40,000 saw more paid ads on the issues of immigration and race. The campaigns riled up anger and fear, and deepened divisions in the society.
9 The reach was huge. Over two years, about 126 million US Facebook users were exposed to content generated by this foreign operation.
10 Americans were also deceived to believe that they were part of spontaneous local movements, when they were in fact being manipulated by a foreign actor. In one instance, the foreign organisation cultivated two ideologically opposed fake Facebook accounts, the “United Muslims of America” and the “Heart of Texas”, and organised a protest and counter-protest at the same place and time to orchestrate discord on the streets. Real Americans in both camps turned up and demonstrated in opposition to each other. One man even brought a rifle.
11 This hostile information campaign was not only to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential elections. Its longer-term objective was to undermine America’s institutions and democracy. The campaign polarised, and generated deep suspicion within American society and against its institutions.
12 We saw a similar pattern of interference in the UK referendum on Brexit. Falsehoods on social media, bots and fake accounts were similarly key tools of foreign interference. Grievances over immigration, and a growing sense of disenfranchisement, were exploited to turn the British people against UK and EU institutions and policies. A steady stream of anti-immigration falsehoods by foreign-linked social media accounts made people feel threatened, and built a narrative of a British government that was failing to protect its citizens. There is also research suggesting that more than 150,000 foreign-linked accounts tweeted over 45,000 pro-Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign.
13 The 2017 French Presidential Elections was also the subject of foreign interference. Just two days before the second round of voting, nine gigabytes of data hacked from presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign were leaked online. In just three and a half hours, the leak was tweeted 47,000 times, with some suspicious Twitter accounts, likely bots in action, posting more than 150 tweets per hour.
14 In the Netherlands, a hostile information campaign sought to undermine support for an EU-Ukraine trade agreement in 2016. The same year in Germany, a hostile information campaign built upon a fabricated story about a German girl being raped by Arab migrants stirred up anti-immigrant sentiments, sparked demonstrations, and eroded public confidence in the German government’s immigration and asylum policy.
15 Perhaps the starkest lesson comes from Ukraine. At the hearings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Ukrainian experts shared their country’s experience. Disinformation about the Ukrainian government was spread through foreign media channels and social networks. It created the impetus for armed conflict and weakened the resolve of Ukrainians to fight. It eroded trust among Ukrainians in their public institutions. The experts highlighted their country’s experience as a cautionary tale, a threat that countries ignore at their peril.
16 Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, co-Founder of StopFake.org, a Ukranian organisation that counters disinformation, said, “You cannot ignore the existence of propaganda, because Ukraine did it for years, and it might happen with any country that one day you can wake up and look in the window and see people with machine guns who kill each other because somebody on TV persuaded them they should hate each other. Our experience, again, demonstrated that this is [disinformation] is a powerful weapon and it could be pointed to any country at any time very, very quickly.”
17 He added, “Unfortunately, ignorance of this threat [of foreign disinformation] cost our country too much.”
18 We are also seeing other insidious forms of interference, by foreign actors attempting to influence those involved in domestic political discourse through funding and donations.
19 Miss Cheng raised specifically the example of Australia. In one instance, a senator resigned after it was revealed that he had received donations from a foreign political donor, and advocated that foreign state’s position on a sensitive issue, contradicting his own party’s official position. The Australian Government has responded swiftly. Australia’s Parliament passed a package of laws in June 2018, aimed at preventing foreign interference in their politics.
20 New Zealand has had similar concerns. An opposition leader allegedly circumvented political donation laws by disguising a donation made by a businessman linked to a foreign government, so that it did not have to be declared. It has sparked debate within the country on the need to review policies against foreign interference.
21 Indeed, today, information can easily be weaponised by foreign actors, at a low cost, and with anonymity and impunity. No country is immune. This is asymmetric information warfare, fought in a theatre and era with no distinction between war and peace.
22 In this battlefield, Singapore, an open, democratic, digitally-connected and diverse country, is especially vulnerable. We are a young country with sensitive fault-lines that foreign actors can exploit to foment distrust and ill-will among our various communities. They can easily deploy the same tactics – both clandestine and overt – that we have seen elsewhere, to undermine our democratic processes and institutions, and subvert our politics.
23 Many of the countries I had mentioned have learnt hard lessons and are taking action to expose and counter foreign interference. We are likewise developing a strategy on two fronts.
24 First, we need to sensitise Singaporeans to the threat, and nurture a discerning public. We are our own first line of defence. We must learn to be sceptical of and be able to discern falsehoods or half-truths, and detect foreign actors and their attempts to interfere in our politics. When they seek to create schisms in our society, we must stand together.
25 Second, we must update and enhance our legal framework to counter hostile information campaigns, which is outmoded against modern and technologically-sophisticated tactics. We must also take further measures to minimise the possibility of politically-involved individuals and organisations being subverted by foreign actors.
26 On hostile information campaigns, new legislation should have two broad objectives. We must be able to act swiftly and effectively to disrupt and counter false, misleading and inauthentic information and narratives spread by foreign actors. We must also be able to pre-emptively expose clandestine foreign interference campaigns.
27 In the physical world, foreign actors may interfere in our domestic politics through the use of proxies, by funding or donating to politically-involved individuals and organisations, or by taking on key leadership roles in the organisations. Our laws must minimise the possibility of such entities being thus used and manipulated. We must not allow foreign actors to undermine our political sovereignty, nor our ability to make our own choices on how we want to govern our country, and live our lives.
28 The threat is real, and we will be moving on these issues later this year.