Oral Answer by Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Questions on Fake News
Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Member of Parliament for Chua Chu Kang GRC)
To ask the Minister for Law whether the existing laws can be strengthened to increase the penalties against the author or publisher of fake news on the Internet.
Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Member of Parliament for Chua Chu Kang GRC)
To ask the Minister for Law (a) whether the Ministry will consider setting up an agency to look into the proliferation of fake news on the internet; (b) what are the Ministry's plans to correct false information in a timely manner; and (c) what is the Ministry's assessment on the likelihood that such news can be manipulated by foreign parties to influence society including election outcomes and social cohesion.
1. Mdm Speaker, may I take Question Numbers 5 and 6 together.
2. I thank the Honourable Members for raising this.
3. Fake news is a global phenomena, and it can result in serious consequences for individuals and society.
4. Fake news can be circulated easily, speedily, widely on social media.
5. Therefore, the circulation of fake news has to be taken seriously.
6. It is a problem that needs to be dealt with quickly.
7. To put it in perspective, we are not talking about trivial factual inaccuracies, but falsehoods that can cause real harm.
8. If you look internationally, one fake news story last year claimed that Mrs Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring operating out of a pizza restaurant.
9. People believed it. One man turned up with an assault rifle and opened fire in the restaurant.
10. Commentators have generally concluded that fake news can also be used as a powerful tool to interfere in domestic politics and domestic affairs. For example:
(1) Before the US presidential elections, there were several fake news stories, huge numbers, claiming that Mrs Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.
(2) Before the “Brexit” referendum, misleading stories were published to fuel xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.
(3) News articles published by foreign-controlled websites were said to be skewed and intended to influence a crucial Referendum in Italy last year.
(4) These are not isolated incidents, and countries are beginning to grapple with it.
11. Media reports have suggested that these were serious attempts to influence the US presidential elections (and perhaps they indeed were influenced), the “Brexit” referendum, the Referendum in Italy, and there are attempts to influence the upcoming elections in Germany and France as well.
12. Again, there are suggestions that many fake news stories during the US elections were created by teenagers from a small town in Macedonia.
(1) They had no interest in the US elections. They were driven solely by money.
(2) Of course, countries may well be involved as well, organised to attack and destabilise other countries during elections, and at other times.
(3) The whole idea is to spread sensational news, sensational headlines, influence the population, and arrive at the outcome that is wanted by a certain country outside.
(4) Often also it makes money, because the more people access their fake news stories, the more advertising revenue the originators earn. It is really easy money for the fake news factories.
13. Many countries have called for a tough stance to be taken against fake news, including the US, UK and Germany, or to put in place more effective measures to counter fake news.
(1) Germany, for example, is considering a draft law that will require social networks, websites, including Facebook, to remove fake news which amounts to illegal content from their platforms. So, make the network itself responsible.
(2) Social networks which fail to comply with such a request could face very stiff fines. In Germany, it is being suggested €50 million – that is a lot of money – under the draft legislation.
14. The UK has also been reported to have launched a Parliamentary probe into fake news, calling it a threat to democracy.
15. Fake news has been a problem in Singapore, not quite at the level that I have listed in other countries, but we see the phenomena. It has not had that much of an impact yet, but you can predict that the same sequence of actors – foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside of Singapore – using it to either destabilise our society, or not caring whether it destabilises but doing it to make a lot of money. Both are problematic.
16. One example of a site that regularly purveyed fake news was of course The Real Singapore. It generated fake news for profit.
17. It is impossible to list all the fake news they published but I can give some examples. In 2015 Thaipusam, it claimed that there was a commotion between the Police and participants, and that this was sparked off by a complaint by a Filipino family.
18. There was no such complaint. One of the editors altered an article from a reader, and then inserted falsehoods into the article and passed it off as facts.
19. One of the editors was also charged for writing another false article, on puppy mills – which she passed off as being written by a Malay Singaporean.
20. The Real Singapore owners made more than $500,000 in advertising revenues, by publishing these completely false articles.
(1) Yang Kaiheng, one of the owners who went to jail, boasted about earning $4,000 to $5,000 a month. Easy money!
(2) Evidence showed that the couple had paid off most of their A$190,000 (S$191,768) 30-year home-loan in just 11 months. So, it is very attractive.
21. The Real Singapore has ceased operations, but one of its former editors, co-founder Alex Tan Zhixiang, has since registered another website called the States Times Review, which continues to publish completely false news, fake news, from outside Singapore.
(1) Last August, it claimed that there was near-zero turnout for the late former President S R Nathan’s funeral, and that kindergarten children were forced to attend. It was an attempt to paint him as an unpopular President.
22. As I said, it has not reached the levels of what is happening elsewhere, but this is an example.
23. There is a table that we have prepared, which sets out some of the falsehoods from the States Times Review. Even when the articles are not totally fake, they are highly misleading, and the whole purpose is to purvey falsehoods and mislead the public.
24. We have incidents of online hoaxes going viral in Singapore.
(1) In November of last year, All Singapore Stuff published a letter supposed to have been written by someone called “Fernandez” with the headline, “S’pore new citizen feels cheated, now wants his old citizenship back”. The headline was accompanied by a completely unrelated photograph of an innocent Singaporean, Mr Prakash Hetamsaria. You can imagine what happened, Mr Hetamsaria was subjected to online abuse and xenophobic, racist comments.
(2) They enjoy this, All Singapore Stuff. Truth is completely irrelevant.
(3) Another article, again in November last year, again in All Singapore Stuff, said the rooftop of Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed. I think MPs would remember this. The Police and Singapore Civil Defence Force had to be mobilised and deployed to investigate the claim. Taxpayers pay the cost for all of this.
(4) Another anonymous post widely circulated on social media falsely claimed that a childcare centre at River Valley Road made their children sleep on the floor and eat rotten fruits, suggesting child neglect. Of course there was a public outcry, but you can imagine the impact on the childcare operator.
25. Hoaxes like these, articles like these, can have real world consequences if not quickly corrected.
(1) They can cause harm to Singaporeans;
(2) Alarm to the public;
(3) Emergency resources will have to be diverted; and
(4) The reputation of businesses and people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged.
26. All because some nasty people seek to profit from this.
27. As I said, there is a much more serious dimension to all of this because fake news today, we must assume, can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign countries.
28. We have already seen examples of that – to get into your public’s mind, to destabilise your public, to psychologically weaken them, and impact your agencies. That is a very serious threat, and it will be naïve for us to believe that governments or state agencies do not engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do.
29. Under our current law, there are limited remedies to deal with these falsehoods.
(1) For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing that it is false.
(2) But these remedies are ineffective; they were really looking at a time before the new age as it were. The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. So we need to do more.
30. The Government is seriously considering how to address this fake news issue. We will announce our position once we have completed our review.