Refresh current legislation rather than introduce new laws to deal with fake news, says legal expert


SINGAPORE: Refreshing and tweaking the current legislative framework to take into account deliberate falsehoods would be more suitable than having “all-encompassing” legislation, Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan said on Wednesday (Mar 28).

This is regardless of whether the falsehoods are propagated online or offline, the law don from the Singapore Management University said. He joined others before him, like activists and rights groups, in expressing concern about the introduction of new laws to deal with fake news in representations to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

Such dedicated legislation could stifle the bottom-up energy and mobilisation that is needed to fight deliberate falsehoods at a time when more robust speech is needed to counter deliberate falsehoods, he pointed out.

Conversations on ”sensitive issues” like race, religion and language may be driven underground for fear of offending or being caught by the law, he added during his oral representation.

The battle against fake news is not a “zero-sum game” wherein to triumph over falsehoods, the freedom of expression has to be curtailed, he said.

“There is merit and effectiveness in retaining the various provisions in the various pieces of legislation that can be used to deal with transgressions involving deliberate falsehoods,” he said in his written submission to the committee.

He noted that if people create falsehoods seeking to target Singapore, an “arsenal” of legislation ranging from the Penal Code, Sedition Act, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and even the Internal Security Act can be used.

“We do not need a proliferation of new laws unless the existing legislative framework is clearly shown to be grossly inadequate even with the necessary amendments,” he said, adding that it is worth noting that there is no one-stop, dedicated legislation to deal with terrorism.

Terrorism is “arguably a greater existential threat to Singapore and Singaporeans than deliberate falsehoods”, he said. 

Dedicated omnibus or all-encompassing legislation is probably too blunt a tool and in updating Singapore’s laws, the temptation for legislative over-reach must be resisted, he added.

“Any new laws must conform to the rule of law and bolster confidence that the legal regime is not designed to curb robust public discourse nor to impose censorship and crush political dissent,” he said.

IF NOT LEGISLATION, THEN WHAT?

Calling the American obsession with Russian interference in the 2016 United States election a “trojan horse”, he said that deliberate falsehoods campaigns work well when there are existing “trust cleavages” in society.

He advocated focusing on the threat from within rather than targetting the threat from deliberate falsehoods to address root causes.

Given that why and how deliberate falsehoods gain traction in Singapore is likely to be different from that of another country, understanding the unique context for the salience of falsehoods is thus vital, Prof Tan said.

Committee member Sun Xueling asked Prof Tan what he would say to new citizen Mr Prakash Kumar Hetamsaria, who was the victim of an online falsehood. 

His photo was used in an online article which said he wanted to give up his Singapore citizenship. Mr Prakash, who also came before the committee on Wednesday, had said current legislation is not enough to seek redress in such situations.

Prof Tan said that while it was ironic coming from a lawyer, law has severe limitations. He said it goes back to understanding the local context and why certain fabrications gain traction.

In Mr Prakash’s case, where the falsehood was shared 44,700 times, but the truth shared thrice, Prof Tan said that it reflects what he thinks is the current social climate where there is “wariness” about immigration.

“The problem here is not Mr Prakash or the laws, but it relates to the fact that there is in our context an issue that makes it very receptive for falsehoods to gain a certain amount of traction,” he said. 

He compared dealing with deliberate falsehoods to having a robust counter-terrorism framework. “We need to have a citizenry that is discerning and not gullible to the extent that they think anything can be true. It is also equally problematic if Singaporeans are so cynical that they believe nothing is true,” he said. 

“There will be the continual need to bolster Singaporeans’ information literacy so that Singaporeans do not succumb easily to ingenious disinformation campaigns. Correspondingly, the need to increase the number of trusted information and news sources such as the mass media is vital.”

CONCERN OVER FAKE NEWS AFFECTING POLITICS?

In January this year, the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Communications and Information issued a Green Paper on the fake news threat which highlighted that political and social discourse can often be seriously influenced by deliberate falsehoods.

Going by the Green Paper, Prof Tan said that it appears that the Government is mostly concerned about deliberate falsehoods affecting elections in Singapore.

He suggested the development of a real-time disclosure regime on political communication, especially paid advertisements, and urged a movement towards transparency and accountability in communication, especially during an electoral campaign.

“Parliament could consider legislating laws requiring political parties and election candidates to publicly disclose spending on social media targeting for an election,” he said. 

He said it is not recommended that the content of political communication be regulated except for the existing restrictions permitted by law. 

“Singaporeans cannot be molly-coddled from the robust and responsible contestation of ideas in the political realm. That in and of itself can be a powerful countermeasure against disinformation,” he said. 



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