Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it is now illegal to spread “false statements of fact” under circumstances in which that information is deemed “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.
Government ministers can decide whether to order something deemed fake news to be taken down, or for a correction to be put up alongside it. They can also order technology companies such as Facebook and Google — both of which opposed the bill during its fast-tracked process through parliament — to block accounts or sites spreading false information.
The act also provides for prosecutions of individuals, who can face fines of up to 50,000 SGD (over $36,000), and, or, up to five years in prison. If the alleged falsehood is posted using “an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot,” the total potential fine rises to 100,000 SGD (around $73,000), and, or, up to 10 years in prison.
Companies found guilty of spreading “fake news” can face fines of up to 1 million SGD (around $735,000).
Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that ministers will have to explain why a piece of content is false if they are ordering a takedown or correction, and will not simply be able to arbitrarily issue a ruling.
Speaking at the time Parliament was considering the bill, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong the “power to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods.”
“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society,” Lee said, echoing concerns voiced by other lawmakers that Singapore’s small, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society makes it particularly vulnerable to misleading content spread online.
But despite repeated assurances by the government that the bill is only intended to stop the rapid spread of malicious falsehoods, many critics remain unconvinced, pointing to Singapore’s poor record on press freedom and protecting political dissent.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told CNN in April he expected the new bill — which comes ahead of elections next year — to be used for “political purposes.”
“The Singapore government has a long history of calling everything they disagree with as false and misleading,” he said.
While the law is aimed primarily at controlling content within Singapore, rights groups have also pointed to the potential leverage it will give over big tech firms and international media with large presences in the city state, including Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Controls on speech
Often these laws are fast-tracked through legislatures in response to specific events or media panics, without the scrutiny that would typically accompany such far-reaching laws.
“The problems that tech companies have had with fake news and hate speech have given (governments) a good opportunity to justify the need for such laws,” she said.