SINGAPORE – K. Shanmugam says social media firms are hampered by their commercial interests when tackling fake news. The Law minister was defending the city-state’s new law and it’s importance against online falsehoods, which critics say stifles free speech.
Shanmugam stressed on the need of the law because the platforms that often host fake news have business models that depend on “attracting eyeballs”.
The minister pointed to the United States where lawmakers have also pulled up social media firms for allowing misinformation about the US election to spread, particularly ahead of US Capitol storm.
“The tendency has been on the side of the internet platforms to say: hey, it’s free speech, there shouldn’t be any regulation of it,” Shanmugam, who is also Singapore’s home minister, said.
“Let’s be frank, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), it’s really putting profit above principle.”
Although Shanmugam remains unclear about the number of countries that would follow Singapore with regulatory measures when it comes to tackling fake news, he feels that there was a “consensus” developing around the world that when it comes to tackling fake news it can’t be left to the tech platforms.
Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) introduced in late 2019 has been called the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date” by the Asia Internet Coalition, an association of internet and technology companies.
The Act allows government ministers to order news outlets, social media users or platforms to inform it’s users that their page or posts contain false statements, and to include links to a government fact-checking website.
There are more stringent actions, fines and even jail for non-compliance.
When ordered to block access to a page last year, Facebook said it contradicted the government’s claim that the law was not a “censorship tool” and joined rights group in saying it could harm freedom of expression in Singapore.
The government says the law only tackles falsehoods and that legitimate criticism and free speech are not affected.
Ahead of the city-states election, the law ensnared several government critics and opposition parties and politicians in July last year, drawing concern from rights groups like Amnesty International. The law has not been used since.
“The fact that a number of them happen to be opposition politicians, suggests to you as to who then engages in such conduct,” Shanmugam said when asked about those who have fallen foul of the law.
He said the reason for the law’s inactivity since the vote was “because there haven’t been such statements”.