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With online media being part of our daily lifestyle, there is a seemingly unlimited amount of information at our disposal and all in an instant, barely even allowing us to pause and think of the degree of authenticity of the content shown. Widespread information that is false or inaccurate up to a certain degree will be able to possibly manipulate and distort human’s perception on a certain topic or article. Unlawful or materially false publication is considered a deliberate online falsehood. Fake news or online falsehood has been a hot topic debated in the socio-political sector in recent years. Websites that intentionally distributed misleading information swept the internet and were often shared across social media platforms leading to higher viewership. Due to this, the repercussions of false information can be disastrous and lives might also be at stake.
Several countries have already imposed legislation on deliberate online falsehoods, encouraging the Singaporean government to join the movement as well. The government should pass more laws to prevent and deal with online falsehoods because existing legislations are limited in battling fake news and this vulnerability therefore threatens our national security. Introduction of a new legislation can be a double-edged sword, doing more harm than good. Conservative groups might argue that equipping citizens with media-literacy and fact-checking skills are better alternatives compared to implementing a new regulation that may complicate the politics and restrain our society which is a stand that I can agree on. An example would be that imposing such a legislation may stifle the freedom of speech. Asia Internet Coalition’s (AIC) managing director Jeff Paine had made a statement expressing his views that there is an actual threat of compromising freedom of expression and speech through law-giving tools that may end up stifling legitimate speech due to the challenges of imposing such a legislation. Despite that, the Select Committee is firm to prudently calibrate the laws and not be overly broad on deliberate online falsehoods, also taking into consideration the setting and circumstances of each incident.
Though I advocate the idea, I believe the case of solely supporting non-legislative measures such as promoting media education onto citizens is inadequate. Regulatory bodies need to be empowered in order for removal of offensive or false posts to minimize the dreadful impact of the distribution. As said by lawyer Sui Yi Long and a group of Singapore Management University (SMU) undergraduates, “the ‘true mischief’ of the issue lies in how these untruths can be spread to a virtually unlimited consumer. ” Moreover, any purveyor thinking of committing deliberate online falsehoods will be forced to reconsider their execution, knowing that political deterrence has been established. As previously mentioned, current legislations are insufficient in addressing the issue. The existing acts are limited in scope, speed and adaptability. Virality of online falsehoods has to be discontinued by removal or blockage of the content in just a matter of hours in order to be labelled as effective, in which existing laws are unable to deliver. Another downside would be the conceivably long duration of investigating the actual identity of the perpetrator, depending on how well the culprit covered his online tracks. Dr Carol Soon and Mr Shawn Goh from Institutes of Policy Studies added that legislation will always be one step behind due to technological advancements and the fact that user behaviour is always shifting that anticipation is challenging.
For example, a felony under the Telecommunications Act does not pertain where a person is unaware that a message is false, and the penalty is targeted at the offender rather than the falsehood itself. This means the disinformation may remain online while prosecution is ongoing. SMU Law Dean Goh Yihan’s written submission regarding the new law will cover 3 features of online falsehood that the current legislation has yet to cover. They are namely, cross-border in nature, easy and rapid spread regardless of geographical or virtual factor and serious consequences. Thus, new legislation should “punish and deter”, “prevent the spread” and “remedial consequences” on deliberate online falsehoods. Therefore, the government should have a new legislation to cover the gap in the legal system.
Secondly, the Government acknowledges the actual risks and serious challenges posed by deliberate online falsehoods. Singapore is not immune to this severe threat that harms our national security and provokes discontent and violence in our community. Online falsehoods tend to be fixated on toying with citizens’ emotions and inducing outrage by showcasing information that are entirely fabricated. Wide spreading of falsehoods can muffle the facts, disillusioning people and can be manipulated to create gaps and damage social cohesion. By having firm laws, our society will be undivided by potential racial or religious tension agitated from deliberate online falsehood hence maintaining social stability.
Internet Research Agency, a Russian group has been found purveying disinformation, with the intent to disseminate discord among American citizens during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. About 29 million people have been exposed to the Russia-linked posts, which led to an even wider spread of viewership due to sharing of the posts. The contents were focused on race, religion, gun controls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues that attempted to segregate people treacherously. Other deceptive operations aimed to weaken public faith in US democratic process and disparage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, favouring the then Republican candidate Donald Trump. The foreign interference undeniably influenced the American voters with disinformation, prior to the election period. Hence, this is another reason why Singapore should impose legislations.
In conclusion, there is no “silver bullet” to win the battle against deliberate online falsehood. Legislative and non-legislative measures need to be introduced together as complementing strengths. Educating critical literacy and fact-checking abilities for the community is just as important as the government enacting new laws. Only by deploying all these measures will we stand a chance in the fight against disinformation.
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