Within a day Facebook had blocked local access to the page, States Times Review. But in an unusually strong statement, the social media giant said it was “deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore.”
Governments are struggling to keep up with coronavirus disinformation flooding the Internet: bogus cures, false reports and a conspiracy theory that the virus was cooked up in a Chinese lab. New York’s attorney general served a cease-and-desist letter to radio host Alex Jones for peddling a fake cure that can turn skin blue, and Britain is paying social media influencers to disseminate accurate information.
Others are turning to a new weapon: laws criminalizing fake news.
Born out of concern about the spread of online falsehoods, these laws are powerful tools that come with hefty fines and jail sentences. But free-speech advocates worry about the potential for authoritarian regimes to use the rules to target their critics and threaten technology companies.
Officials in Singapore have used the coronavirus outbreak to justify the fake-news legislation introduced last year and the sweeping power it grants ministers to decide what constitutes a breach, a particular sticking point for tech firms. The wealthy island state has used the law more than two dozen times, beyond immediate public health issues.
In Thailand, authorities have arrested at least 13 people for allegedly spreading falsehoods related to the outbreak, and they are working with the new Anti-Fake News Center to police the Internet. Indonesia has arrested at least six over coronavirus hoaxes. In Nigeria, lawmakers are debating a bill inspired by Singapore’s. The senator who introduced it went so far as to compare fake news to a virus that must be contained.
Debating how to push back
The new laws have frustrated tech companies, especially in Singapore. After sinking billions of dollars into data centers and new campuses, and relocating hundreds of staffers to the Southeast Asian city, these firms say their hands are tied by the new law and its aggressive implementation.
“Tech companies are really struggling with how to push back,” said one person familiar with discussions between the companies and the Singapore government. “They have been shocked at how indignant the government is on this law.”
A Facebook spokeswoman told The Washington Post that the company is not “fighting tooth and nail with the Singapore government” but believes it’s important to share its “perspective on laws that impact our business and the people that use our platforms.”
Twitter declined to comment specifically on Singapore’s misinformation law. On the coronavirus outbreak, the company said its public policy team has “engaged a range of government entities” and assisted in supporting their campaigns and updates “as authentic and credible voices on the issues and as decision-makers.”
Google, meanwhile, said it is removing misinformation from platforms like YouTube, but it did not comment specifically on the Singapore law.
Some countries are emulating Singapore’s law but forgoing some of the safeguards, such as the ability to challenge orders in court (though this has happened only once in the city-state).
The Singapore law “is especially appealing to other authoritarian governments that are looking for less-draconian ways to control the narratives, stifle dissenting voices and legitimize their actions,” said Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school who researches misinformation in Asia.
Officially known as the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, the Singapore legislation took effect in October and was first used in November. It allows any government minister to issue a correction notice that must be posted alongside an assertion they deem false. Repeat offenders will be blocked if they do not post a label from the Singapore government identifying themselves as recalcitrant, as in the case of the States Times Review.
The law “is just one in the spectrum of tools that we have in order to deal with this whole challenge of disinformation and online falsehoods,” Singapore’s communications and information minister, S. Iswaran, said in an interview. “We think it is important to juxtapose the truth with the falsehood, because that is where the eyeballs are.”
In Thailand, Minister of Digital Economy and Society Buddhipongse Punnakanta, who also heads the new Anti-Fake News Center, said in an interview that the measures and arrests were needed because “false news makes people panic and public officials work harder to contain the spread of the virus.”
When the center opened in November, he told reporters that it was “not for protecting the government from any critics. It is for protecting the people from fake news.”
The specter of overreach
Efforts to regulate online content came after misinformation, hate speech and fake accounts permeated unchecked for years, leading to devastating consequences in places such as Myanmar, India and the Philippines. Experts have long warned that technology companies cannot be relied on to police themselves.
Social media companies have cautiously backed regulation while emphasizing the importance of an open Internet and free speech. Facebook in February published a white paper suggesting a way forward, and founder Mark Zuckerberg this month addressed the coronavirus outbreak, saying his platform is “removing false claims and conspiracy theories” flagged by global health organizations.
Governments say they need to go further.
“You have got to ask, from a national or societal point of view, who should have the say when it comes to content on social media which can have a material impact on public interest?” said Singapore’s Iswaran.
Critics worry that some countries are behaving opportunistically, using the coronavirus outbreak to justify such legislation rather than looking for other ways to address misinformation without trammeling free speech.
Ja Ian Chong, a visiting professor at the Harvard-Yenching Institute and an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, points to Taiwan, where authorities have accused Chinese troll accounts of deliberately spreading misinformation about their handling of the virus. Rather than police the Internet, Chong said, Taiwanese authorities have tried to stave off public panic and mass infections through “transparency, outreach and public education.”
Singapore authorities say they are weighing how to use the law to target misinformation on encrypted apps such as WhatsApp, owned by Facebook. The fake-news law covers such platforms, but the tech companies can’t read the messages, so a solution hasn’t been found.
In the wake of the blocking order, States Times Review’s owner, Australia-based Singaporean Alex Tan, changed the page’s name and web address. He continues posting on an otherwise indistinguishable page. The Facebook page’s profile picture has a simple, one-word description: “Victory.”
Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok and Danielle Paquette in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.