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Shanmugam: Law to be introduced next year to combat fake news

Singapore faces issues such as misinformation exploiting racial and religious fault lines, and rumours that confuse and promote distrust

Mr Shanmugam said an earlier survey showed more than nine in 10 Singaporeans supported stronger laws to ensure fake news is removed or corrected.


RUMOUR mongers beware.

A new law to fight fake news will be introduced next year and the government will be consulting stakeholders on the issue in the second half of this year.

Revealing this in his keynote address on Monday at a conference on the issue, Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said the government has to maintain a strong climate of trust, and be able to counter misinformation spread online.

He said the authorities must be equipped to deal with current challenges and that society, the media and Internet companies also have a role to play.

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Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the conference titled Keep It Real: Truth And Trust In The Media.

There are limited remedies to deal with falsehoods under current laws, the minister had told Parliament in April when he announced a review to tackle the problem then.

Mr Shanmugam told participants at the conference on Monday that an earlier survey showed more than nine in 10 Singaporeans supported stronger laws to ensure fake news is removed or corrected.

Misinformation, he said, is more serious now than before, and is an "easy and effective" way to advance agendas.

Members of the public and of civil society, therefore, have to help foster a culture where the truth is protected, and that is why media literacy is extremely important - so people can spot fake news and deal with it, he said.

He added that there are teams in Germany and the United Kingdom to study what those countries are doing on that front. For instance, Germany is considering laws that would require social networks to take down various types of "unlawful content".

The media plays an important role in being a trusted source of news, while companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter also "bear a significant responsibility" in tackling misinformation, and some of these firms have given their voluntary commitment to remove reported hate speech within 24 hours but this may not be enough, Mr Shanmugam said.

He added that the government cannot merely rely on the standards of media companies as the negative impact of false narratives is amplified by "echo chambers" online.

He said Singapore has been "particularly vulnerable" to foreign influences harnessing fake news for their own ends. The country also faces issues such as misinformation exploiting racial and religious fault lines, and rumours on social media like WhatsApp that confuse and promote distrust.

"If the distrust becomes deep-rooted, people will have serious doubts about the institutions, about leadership, about governance," said Mr Shanmugam.

Tripti Lochan, CEO, SEA & India of VML, said: "Brands must be proactive about protecting themselves against fake news because of the negative impact this would have on brand image.

"Being in a position of vulnerability means they cannot rest on their laurels even with the new legislation in place.

"Trust is integral to the relationships that brands and consumers share, and is one of the most important factors contributing towards building customer loyalty. Fake news would mean an erosion of consumer trust at a time when consumer trust is already not at its strongest."

At a doorstop on Monday, Mr Shanmugam told reporters what the new laws should do: "We know what the end point should be: to delegitimise fake news, help people identify what is and what is not fake news, and to deal with the perpetrators of fake news."

When asked why wait till 2018 to introduce the law, a spokesman for MinLaw said that with digital technology and social media, the effects of misinformation have become more potent than before.

"Recent events around the world have demonstrated the serious harm that online misinformation can do, and how it is often driven by agendas that are against the public interest.

"The government's aim is to ensure we are equipped to deal with the new digital reality in the long term. We do not intend to react with short-term measures."

Adding that the problem of online fake news is "complex and does not lend itself to simple solutions", finding an effective one requires "a thorough understanding of how misinformation is spread online, the motivations for creating and circulating misinformation, and the impact of misinformation on what people believe".

"It will also require the support and cooperation of all the stakeholders involved to ensure that the Internet is kept a safe place for people to stay informed and connected across the world. We therefore need to do a careful and comprehensive review, working closely with relevant stakeholders to develop solutions," said the spokesman.

The two-day conference at the new Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law Building on Armenian street was organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra), in partnership with the Canadian High Commission, Facebook, Google, German political organisation Konrad Adenauer Foundation, National Library Board and SMU.

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