SINGAPORE IS fighting fake news — or is it fighting free speech? The line between the two is thin, and the island nation’s proposed rules for regulation are a reminder that confronting misinformation can come with risks.
Singapore’s legislature is considering a bill that would require websites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to run corrections next to “online falsehoods.” Companies that failed to comply would have their profits “cut off,” and individuals who knowingly communicated false statements that threatened the “public interest” would risk up to five years in prison and a $37,000 fine. Singapore’s government says the regulations are necessary because the country’s small size makes it especially easy for online rumors to exacerbate existing religious and racial tensions.
Misinformation may well be dangerous in Singapore, just as it is proving dangerous worldwide. Singaporean officials have been using this ostensible danger as a pretext to quell dissent for more than half a century. The country claims the mantle of a multiparty democracy on the grounds that the government holds elections, yet it sues opposing politicians into bankruptcy, jails peaceful protesters and muzzles journalists. In this context, it is not surprising that Singapore has seized on the real problem of viral misinformation to push legislation that would allow government ministers to demand action against any false content that jeopardizes “friendly relations” with other countries, diminishes confidence in the government or puts “public tranquillity” at risk — all without defining what “false” is supposed to mean.
Singapore’s proposal is perilous in itself, especially because it could force social media sites to develop new software that might not be confined to one tiny country alone. But the trend of anti-misinformation laws — Russia passed one last month — is also a reminder that nations friendlier to free speech should take care not to tread on their citizens’ rights as they struggle to grapple with online falsehoods. That includes Australia, which recently rammed through a law criminalizing the circulation of “abhorrent violent material,” along with Britain, which is considering its own rules against “harmful content.” And it includes, of course, the United States, where next week lawmakers will question technology executives over the spread of white nationalism on their platforms.
Companies should be doing more to reduce the spread of unsafe posts on their sites, and governments are not wrong to want to know how they plan to make that happen. But as the United States has that crucial conversation, lawmakers should ensure they hew to this country’s defining commitment to free expression. Officials here should also speak out to discourage other nations from responding to the menace of misinformation by strangling citizens’ speech.