Singapore is likely to have a fake news law by the end of 2018. While this seems a sensible approach to tackling an increasingly prominent issue, it remains to be seen what form the fake news law will take.
What is fake news and why is it a threat?
The term, ‘fake news’, has been incorporated into modern jargon as untrue news or false information. This is loosely defined, since user-generated content can be passed off as speculation or mere opinion. However, certain news stories and news sources have greater impact than others in distorting political opinion, harming the reputation of public figures or simply spreading damaging hoaxes. The new Singaporean law will most likely focus on curbing falsehoods that could cause real harm, rather than trivial factual inaccuracies.
What laws are already in place to prevent fake news?
The Singaporean government has already set standards to curb the spread of false information. For example, the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) is responsible for filtering out publications for inaccuracies, specifically with the Broadcasting Act (Cap 28) that allows it to remove certain websites. News and media outlets must own a permit before they can print, publish and broadcast news stories, and the permit will only be issued if certain criteria are fulfilled. Similarly, many internet content and service providers must own a license before distributing content and this content must be in line with ‘public interest’, ‘public order’ and ‘national harmony’. Criminal law also intervenes in cases of defamation, sedition and harassment. Section 45 of the Telecommunications Act threatens a fine and imprisonment for a person who knowingly transmits a false message.
Nevertheless, in this digital age, the Singapore government have struggled to curb the spread of false information with just these laws. Articles, stories and posts are being disseminated every second and read by thousands before authorities can dissect truth from untruths. A poll that was conducted this year among 1,617 residents aged 15 and older showed that two in three Singaporeans could not discern ‘fake news’ from real news. Also, a quarter of the respondents admitted to sharing information that they later learnt to be false.
What will the law on fake news look like?
The government has not yet proposed its plan for the new fake news law. There have been some suggestions as to what form the law could take, including amending the definition of “Internet Content Provider”, widening responsibility from just the IMDA to society as a whole, or identifying online “gatekeepers”. It remains to be seen whether any of these proposals will be adopted and therefore how the existing regime will be revised, including the liabilities of content intermediaries.