Oral Answer by Senior Minister of State for Law, Mr Edwin Tong to Parliamentary Question on Deliberate Online Falsehoods
Mr Murali Pillai (Member of Parliament for Bukit Batok SMC)
To ask the Minister for Law what is the Ministry's views on the deliberate online falsehood appearing in recent news reports published in States Times Review, China Press and elsewhere alleging that Singapore is involved in corrupt 1MDB deals.
1. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I would like to distribute two handouts, which I would refer to in the course of addressing this question. On 5 November 2018, an article was published on the website, the States Times Review (STR), stating that agreements with Malaysia on the supply of water, and on the high-speed rail, favoured Singapore. These arguments have been raised by Malaysia previously and dealt with before in this House and elsewhere.
2. This time, however, STR added a malicious twist. It took the old points on the agreements, and concocted a conspiracy theory about how our Prime Minister and the Singapore Government corruptly allowed money laundering of 1MDB funds in exchange for terms favouring Singapore.
3. Mr Speaker, the suggestion that we were helping launder 1MDB monies, or were reluctant to investigate are quite untrue. Singapore was the first jurisdiction to take strong action against the financial institutions and individuals involved in the 1MDB scandal. Investigations commenced in March 2015, and have since led to serious action taken against wrongdoers.
4. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) undertook a two-year investigation of both foreign and local banks. This was the most extensive supervisory review it has ever taken. As a result of these investigations, it shut down two banks – BSI Bank Limited Singapore, and Falcon Bank. BSI Bank was also hit with a financial penalty of S$13.3 million. MAS also imposed financial penalties totalling around S$29.1 million on eight other banks.
5. MAS also worked to bring wrongdoers to justice. It seized assets amounting to S$240 million, of which S$120 million belonged to Jho Low and his immediate family. Arrest warrants for Jho Low and his proxy Tan Kim Loong were issued. Singapore also requested Interpol Red Notices to be put out for Low and Tan.
6. We are the first – and it seems, the only – country to date of at least ten jurisdictions involved, that has secured convictions of individuals who facilitated the laundering. Five individuals have been charged and convicted for offences relating to the 1MDB scandal. Investigations are continuing into several other suspects in Singapore.
7. On 8 June this year, officers from the MAS, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Commercial Affairs Department met the Malaysian 1MDB Taskforce led by Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail. Singapore has been providing Malaysia information on 1MDB-related fund flows since March 2015, and this has been acknowledged by Malaysia.
8. The information I have referred to is all publicly available. And obviously there is no basis for the claims of corruption being made against our officials.
The circumstances in which the falsehood was spread
9. I move on now to the curious circumstances in which the falsehoods were then further perpetuated. A few months ago, in May 2018, a similar article was published by STR. On 5 November 2018, the same article was re-packaged. It used a quote from the Sarawak Report as a peg to reiterate the falsehoods first published in May. As at 8 November, this article had been shared around 1,600 times on Facebook.
10. Some of these shares resulted from a concerted effort by a small group of users to spread the article across multiple Facebook groups; including groups that ostensibly cover unrelated subjects. The shares by this small group of just 7 users accounted for the falsehood potentially seen by over 800,000 users who were members of these Facebook groups.
11. Some of these facts and figures are set out in the handouts. If I may refer members to the first handout which has the ST Review on the left hand side, you will see that seven Facebook users shared the article collectively 45 times, over 3 days, to 39 unique Facebook groups. In this 3-day period, about 800,000 potential viewers had been given access to this article. If you go to the second page of that handout, to illustrate a different point, this post was shared to five different groups within a span of just one minute and you will see the timings on the left hand side of the extract on the second page. On the third page of the same handout, to illustrate the spread of the article, the reach on Facebook just to these four illustrative groups amounted to about 380,000. And you will see in the top left hand box, the number of members in that group was close to 350,000. So very quickly and very widely, this was spread.
12. On 7 November, this re-packaged article was reproduced on Malaysian website The Coverage. This report was then picked up by Malaysian Chinese-language newspaper China Press where it was viewed 45,000 times by 8 November, just one day later. Two YouTube videos were also put up, translating the allegations into Mandarin.
13. It is interesting that in this case, the spread of disinformation followed a pattern that has been established elsewhere – a falsehood first appears on an obscure site, and then gets picked up by mainstream media, which lends credence to the claims. I will cite two examples in the report of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which demonstrate these tactics in action. And as I go through the next few paragraphs, members can refer to the second handout by way of illustration.
14. The first, highlighted by Mr Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, was a false claim about the vulnerability of the United States Navy. The false claim was first posted on an obscure website, then re-published by a foreign mainstream media outlet. It eventually began trending on social media, and was then published by a significant number of prominent news outlets and tabloids in other countries. It took just seven days for the falsehood to go from an obscure website to international news.
15. The second example, also cited to the Committee by Mr Nimmo, related to a disinformation campaign against Morgan Freeman, after he had said that a foreign country had attacked the US using online activity during the 2016 US Presidential Election. An obscure website run by trolls first initiated a hashtag #StopMorganLie, while publishing the claim that he was lying.
16. This hashtag was then amplified on social media, including by a group claiming to be independent activists from the foreign country. It was finally picked up by the mainstream media of the foreign country, who claimed that the counter-movement against Morgan Freeman’s assertion was a “big Twitter outcry”, even though online traffic using the hashtag amounted to only about 1,000 posts. It was later discovered that the accounts of the so-called activists were actually controlled by a troll factory in the foreign country. What appeared to be an organic movement was really an orchestrated campaign. That is the evidence of Mr Ben Nimmo, when he came before the Select Committee.
The Government’s Response
17. Now turning to the Government’s response. On the evening of 8 November, MAS lodged a police report in relation to the STR article. Action will be taken against the wrongdoers, based on the outcome of Police investigations and the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
18. We also took active steps to debunk the falsehoods, and stem their dissemination. The Singapore High Commission in Malaysia stated categorically the article was “clearly libellous”. And this was carried in a number of mainstream media outlets in Malaysia. Notably, STR did not carry the clarification.
19. IMDA issued a request to STR on 9 November to take down the article. STR declined to do so. IMDA proceeded to direct the Internet Service Providers to block the STR website, and they have since done so.
20. IMDA also asked Facebook to deny access to the post on STR’s Facebook page, on the basis that the post contains material that is contrary to the public interest, thereby constituting prohibited content under the IMDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Facebook declined to do so.
21. This is surprising. First, the post is clearly false as I have explained above. The Sarawak Report on which the STR post was based and quoted, itself published a Facebook post calling the article on The Coverage, which had reproduced the STR article, “misleading” and “erroneous”. It later published another post debunking the false claims. Many Malaysian publications, including the China Press, took down their articles after our High Commission in Malaysia issued the clarification.
22. Second, as the IMDA has made clear – the post contains material that violates Singapore law.
23. Despite the clear falsehoods attacking Singapore, Facebook did not consider that there were sufficient grounds for it to remove the post. Because of this, Facebook’s post with the false claims continues to be available on Facebook.
24. Facebook’s reluctance to remove the post is surprising. In April 2017, it had said that it is “committed to doing everything [it] can to reduce the spread of false news to as close to zero as possible.” In its written representation to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Facebook said that it “believe[d] that reducing the spread of misinformation and false news is a shared responsibility between public authorities, tech companies, newsrooms and classrooms.” Facebook has also given assurances that it would work closely with the Singapore authorities to swiftly address online falsehoods. And yet, when there is an actual falsehood that attacks Singapore, Facebook refuses to remove the content.
25. Facebook has said, in response to media queries on its decision, that it does not “have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm.” There are many situations where serious harm is caused even though there is no potential for “imminent violence or physical harm”. And as Members will appreciate, the slow drip of poison, over a period of time, can one day result in and burst into violence. And Facebook will do nothing about it, despite the various statements made in Singapore and elsewhere. It will allow itself to be a platform for the spread of lies, falsity, to poison and divide societies through such lies, encourage xenophobia, and profit from that.
26. This incident therefore demonstrates why we cannot rely on the goodwill of service provider platforms to protect Singapore from disinformation campaigns. It reinforces the Select Committee’s recommendations that legislative powers are needed to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods.
27. In conclusion, this incident demonstrates once again the insidious nature of deliberate online falsehoods. When STR failed the first time to gain traction, it simply re-packaged the same falsehoods. That was then sought to give credibility by mainstream media.