Motion for Select Committee passed in Parliament following debate
MPs raise concerns as Parliament appoints select committee to study deliberate online falsehoods
All 80 Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to pass a motion yesterday to appoint a Select Committee that will study the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, or fake news, and give recommendations to tackle the issue.
In his speech to move the motion, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said Singapore is "highly susceptible" to these falsehoods due to its attractiveness as a target, its diverse societal make-up and its high Internet penetration.
"I am asking Parliament to appoint a select committee to examine and report on the causes and consequences of deliberate online falsehoods and the counter measures that will be required to prevent and combat them in Singapore," he said.
The committee will consist of 10 MPs, he added, and it may also consult the public for feedback, which Mr Shanmugam said will be "useful to do so".
Deputy Speaker Charles Chong will head the committee, with seven MPs from the People's Action Party, one from the Workers' Party and one Nominated MP (NMP).
A lively debate followed Mr Shanmugam's speech, as 11 MPs took turns to make suggestions, highlight concerns and give examples of fake news, both here and elsewhere. (See report below.)
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim called for an "inclusive approach" to tackle deliberate online falsehoods.
"Technology is agnostic; it is the people and actors abusing technology to spread online falsehoods that are the problem," said Dr Yaacob as he called for both the public and private sectors to help achieve a shared understanding of the threat and a shared ownership of the solution.
Miss Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) told the house: "Repeated instances of deliberate online falsehoods can also have cost, as they can lead to a cry-wolf syndrome whereby when a real emergency strikes, no one reacts because everybody is accustomed to thinking it is false news."
Miss Sun also agreed with NMP Kok Heng Leun, who felt it was important to separate falsehoods from people who are just "expressing their opinions".
Noting the need to define what a falsehood is, Mr Kok said a heavy-handed approach could stifle dissenting views even when they are constructive.
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) said: "Heavy-handed legislation may backfire on the Government, acting as the judge, jury and executioner of what constitutes credible information. We may end up freezing free speech online."
Several MPs stressed the importance of media literacy and education, with NMP Ganesh Rajaram noting that tertiary educations had modified their courses to incorporate lessons on fake news, which was reported in The New Paper earlier this week.
The MPs also made suggestions on tackling deliberate online falsehoods, such as fining online platforms that fail to take down fake content, using mainstream media outlets and social media influencers to counter fake news, and deploying undergraduates as independent fact checkers.
Addressing the MPs' concerns, Mr Shanmugam said: "My own view is that combating falsehoods is not contrary to the exercise of freedom of speech. In fact, keeping falsehoods out of our discourse enables freedom of speech to be meaningfully exercised."
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Examples of deliberate online falsehoods
MS RAHAYU MAHZAM (JURONG GRC)
Viral video of a cricket match victory celebration in Pakistan was misrepresented as Muslims in London celebrating terror attacks in Paris in November 2015.
MR SEAH KIAN PENG (MARINE PARADE GRC)
In 2007, FairPrice had to deal with falsehoods that it was selling "halal pork". The fake photo resurfaced again in 2011 and 2014.
MR CHRISTOPHER DE SOUZA (HOLLAND-BUKIT TIMAH GRC)
The United Kingdom's Brexit referendum in 2016 was affected by a misleading poll that millions of Turks would move to the UK if it remained in the European Union.
HOME AFFAIRS AND LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
Rumours online that cat and dog meat was mixed into satay marinade in Geylang Bazaar in June 2017.