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Singapore orders Facebook to correct a user's 'anti-govt' blog post

Singapore is just one of many nations grappling with how to respond to propaganda and false information online

Philip J. Heijmans | Bloomberg 

Representative image

The Singaporean government on Friday again invoked its recently enacted “fake news” law, this time ordering Inc. to publish a correction notice on a post made by an anti-government blog.

In the third such order in a week, an arm of the Ministry of Communications and Information instructed to correct a States Times Review post accused of using falsehoods to criticize the ruling People’s Action Party. The government had previously denounced the report that police had arrested a government whistle-blower and taken down information that exposed a plot to turn the affluent city into a Christian state.

Singapore introduced its controversial fake-news law as it prepares to hold general elections by April 2021, though the ruling party has called for early polls in recent cycles. Officials, including Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, have openly questioned the ability of internet to handle widespread misinformation -- a growing scourge of elections around the world. But critics worry the new legislation can be used to clamp down on free speech. A representative acknowledged it has received the government request but declined further comment.

The order “requires Facebook to publish a correction notice,” the ministry arm, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Office, said in a statement. It “has also commenced investigations against Mr. Tan for failing to comply” with the Thursday order.

The agency issued its statement following what it called “non-compliance” of a government order on Thursday directed at author Alex Tan. According to a government clarification, Tan’s post dated Nov. 23 made a number of false assertions. “These claims are false and baseless,“ the clarification read. “The STR also has made scurrilous accusations against the Elections Department, the Prime Minister, and the election process in Singapore.”

‘Good Case Study’

Tan, who runs the States Times Review Facebook page from his home in Sydney, said he was never notified of the government order, but issued a clarification on Thursday after being told of the matter by a friend. The post’s edit history shows the clarification was added at 1:19 pm Thursday.

“Technically speaking, I fulfilled what they wanted,” the 32-year-old said by phone. “If you ask me, I think the government is testing their new powers, so basically this would be a good case study.”

Singapore is just one of many nations grappling with how to respond to propaganda and false information online. With general elections just around the corner in the city-state, the leader of a new opposition party worries the law could be used to muzzle dissent, though ministers have said legislation is needed to deal with the spread of misinformation that could undermine free speech.

After coming into force last month, the so-called POFMA office invoked its anti-‘fake news’ law for the first time last week at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. In that case, the government directed opposition party member Brad Bowyer to include a correction notice in a Facebook post on the government’s involvement in investment decisions by Temasek Holdings Pte and GIC Pte, as well as Keppel Corp.’s finances.

Bowyer has since obliged while also including a link to a 15-point statement on a government website detailing what it deemed “false statements of fact and misleading statements” in his original post.

First Published: Fri, November 29 2019. 14:23 IST