Wednesday 5 April 2017

Fake news: Singapore Government to review laws to tackle falsehoods

Fake news: Current laws 'offer limited remedies'
Examples show falsehoods can cause real harm, says Shanmugam

By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2017

The Government is seriously considering how to address the issue of fake news, and will announce its position once a review is completed, Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

There are limited remedies to deal with falsehoods under current laws, he said. For example, it is an offence under the Telecommunications Act to transmit a message knowing that it is false.

But, he added: "The circulation of falsehoods can go viral today very quickly. So we need to do more."

Chua Chu Kang GRC MPs Yee Chia Hsing and Zaqy Mohamad had asked about fake news, which has become a global concern of late.

Mr Shanmugam said one had to assume it "can be used as an offensive weapon by foreign agencies and foreign countries".

"We have already seen examples of that - to get into your public's mind, to destabilise your public, to psychologically weaken them and impact your agencies," he said. "That is a very serious threat, and it will be naive for us to believe that governments or state agencies do not engage in this. There is enough evidence that they do."

He cited examples to show fake news was not about "trivial factual inaccuracies, but falsehoods that can cause real harm". Last year, a man opened fire on a pizza restaurant in the United States after a fake news story claimed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a paedophilia ring there. Commentators have suggested it can be a powerful tool to interfere in domestic politics, with misleading stories fuelling xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments before the Brexit referendum, and attempts to sway upcoming polls in Germany and France.

"These are not isolated incidents," the minister said, noting that other countries may be involved.

"The whole idea is to spread sensational news, sensational headlines, influence the population, and arrive at the outcome that is wanted by a certain country outside," he added.

That is why several countries have called for a tough stance against fake news, he said. Germany is considering a draft law requiring social networks like Facebook to remove fake news from their platforms, or risk fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million). United Kingdom MPs have begun a probe into fake news, calling it a threat to democracy.

He also cited local examples of false news from sites The Real Singapore, States Times Review and All Singapore Stuff to illustrate how the trend, if unchecked, can cause harm to innocent Singaporeans, alarm to the public, and damage to reputations.

While fake news has been a problem here, it has not had that much of an impact yet, he noted.

But, he added: "You can predict the same sequence of actors - foreign countries, foreign agencies, people sitting outside Singapore - using it to either destabilise our society, or not caring whether it destabilises but doing it to make a lot of money."

Examples of falsehoods in Singapore and other countries
The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2017


Fake: On Nov 22 last year, All Singapore Stuff website published an article with the headline "S'pore new citizen feels cheated, now wants his old citizenship back". The article was accompanied by an unrelated photograph of a Mr Prakash Hetamsaria.

Fact: The person in the photo was not the new citizen mentioned in the headline. Many netizens, however, did not click on the article to read that it was submitted by "Fernandez", and assumed the new citizen was the person whose photo appeared in the article. The photo was later replaced with one of Chinese actress Gong Li receiving her Singapore citizenship papers from MP Lee Bee Wah in 2008.

Fake: In November last year, All Singapore Stuff published an article saying the rooftop of Punggol Waterway Terraces had collapsed.

Fact: Police and civil defence were mobilised and deployed to investigate the claim, which turned out to be a hoax.

Fake: In January, messages circulated on social media and messaging platforms, claiming supermarket chain FairPrice's house brand jasmine rice was made from plastic.

Fact: FairPrice said on its Facebook page that its rice had passed safety checks by the authorities. FairPrice made a police report on the matter.

Fake: In February, an anonymous post widely circulated on social media claimed that a childcare centre in River Valley Road made children sleep on the floor and eat rotten fruit, with photographs as "evidence".

Fact: The Early Childhood Development Agency said, following investigations, that the centre had complied with regulatory requirements and the photos appeared to have been taken out of context.


Fake: Last August, American sociopolitical site The Political Insider published an article with the headline: "WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS... Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!"

Fact: No WikiLeaks e-mails confirm that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton directly and knowingly "sold weapons to ISIS".

Fake: Last October, Russian TV network Russia Today published a video, ahead of the Italian constitutional referendum of Dec 4, purporting to show thousands of people protesting against Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Fact: The people had gathered in support of Mr Renzi, not to protest against him.

Fake: In January, Breitbart News, of the United States, published an article reporting that at the New Year's Eve celebrations in Dortmund, Germany, a mob of more than 1,000 men chanting "Allahu Akhbar" launched fireworks at the police and set fire to a historic church.

Fact: The German police said no "extraordinary or spectacular" incidents marred the festivities. Scaffolding covering the church caught fire from a stray firecracker, but it was put out in 12 minutes.

Fake: In February, the claim that Bata shoes had the Arabic word "Allah" on its soles went viral in Malaysia. Bata withdrew 70,000 pairs from its stores in Malaysia, losing more than RM500,000 (S$158,000).

Fact: Bata was cleared of the allegations by the Al-Quran Printing Control and Licensing Board of Malaysia's Home Ministry.


Germany: Considering a law that will require social networks like Facebook to remove fake news. Those that fail to do it promptly can face fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million).

Britain: Considering whether fake news spreaders can be blocked or closed down, or if genuine news outlets can be given a special verification mark. Also, it is urging tech companies to help tackle the problem on social media platforms as they have done in combating piracy, illegal content sharing, hate speech and cyber bullying.

Spread falsehoods about police? Action will be taken
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2017

Those who deliberately spread falsehoods about the police and other public institutions will soon be taken to task, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"The time has come for us not to simply rebut, but to actively deal with it, so that the people who seek to profit from such conduct will actually feel the pain of it," he said. "We are looking at it and something will be done."

He was replying to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who asked if the police would consider taking action to protect their reputation when false and malicious allegations are made.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, cited a recent public perception survey where over nine in 10 people said the police demonstrated core values of courage, loyalty and integrity. This has led to an "enormous reservoir of trust".

Consequently, the police will investigate any allegation thoroughly and issue a public response rebutting the allegations if they are untrue, he said. He noted that sociopolitical website The Online Citizen "in particular glorifies in running the police down with a series of untrue stories", and cited a recent instance where it falsely alleged that police officers had accused a wheelchair user of motorcycle theft.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the police are not immune to making mistakes, saying public servants who commit crimes have faced the consequences. Genuine feedback could sometimes be made in error.

But what is objectionable are deliberate falsehoods, he stressed.

"If there is no wrongdoing or misconduct and you deliberately accuse to pull down the institution by manufacturing lies, and if public trust in police is eroded and they can no longer enforce rule of law effectively, all of us will be the worse for it," he said.

Britain takes aim at fake news bubble
Parliamentary probe launched to examine the issue, which is 'a threat to democracy'
The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2017

LONDON • The rise of fake news has been a hot topic in Britain this year, with lawmakers leading a probe into the phenomenon and warning it is "a threat to democracy".

As well as the inquiry, British journalism schools have begun to adapt their teaching, while national broadcaster BBC has issued prevention guidelines for children in an attempt to reverse the trend.

Mr Damian Collins, head of the parliamentary probe, said fake news undermined trust in the media in general, with the explosion of social media making political issues particularly sensitive.

Fake news represents "a threat to democracy... if people are deliberately using it on social media platforms to spread misinformation around an election", he said.

The panel is considering whether fake news spreaders could be blocked or closed down, or genuine news outlets be given a special verification mark.

Mr Collins urged tech companies to help tackle the problem on social media platforms as they had done in combating piracy, illegal content sharing, cyber bullying and hate speech.

But the tech giants had moved only "in response to pressure, and reluctantly", the MP warned.

BBC television's Newsround, a news bulletin for children, explained fake news to youngsters in February.

The programme created Think Before You Click clips informing youngsters of how to spot false stories, using invented tales of yellow pandas, robot head-teachers and unidentified flying objects.

Fake news is not a 21st-century phenomenon, but what is new is its scale, said Dr James Rodgers, senior lecturer in journalism at the City University of London.

"Before, being published relied on getting into an established medium. It no longer does," he said.

City University of London runs some of Britain's most prestigious journalism courses.

The former BBC and Reuters journalist said three main factors seem to create the conditions for a fake news surge.

"These spikes seem to occur at times of political uncertainty, armed conflict and new technology. We have all of those three at the moment," he said.

In Britain, there is a fine tradition of humorous spoof news. It reaches a crescendo on April 1, April Fools' Day, when newspapers and broadcasters traditionally try to catch their audience out.

The pick of last Saturday's crop included Prince Harry's quickie wedding in Las Vegas and a new fashion range launched by former finance minister George Osborne.

A Daily Express piece saying that the European Union was to demand the recall of every British number plate following Brexit provoked anger among readers, with one commenter writing "the EU can shove their dumb number plates where the sun don't shine".

A fake news producer explained that as demonstrated by the Express report, the key to getting stories to go viral was to appeal to people's emotions.


Germany warns of heavy fines in bid to stop hate speech, fake news
The Straits Times, 6 Apr 2017

BERLIN • Germany yesterday took the European lead in cracking down on hate speech and fake news, threatening social media giants with fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million) if they fail to remove offensive posts promptly.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet approved the tough measure after assessing that companies such as Twitter and Facebook were not doing enough to erase content that ran afoul of German law.

"Hate crimes that are not effectively combated and prosecuted pose a great danger to the peaceful cohesion of a free, open and democratic society," Dr Merkel's government said in a statement.

Since the arrival of around one million asylum seekers in Germany from 2015, the volume of xenophobic hate speech has exploded online.

Alarmed by the incendiary nature of the posts, the government has repeatedly warned the online behemoths to take action to better police content on their networks.

The Internet companies had pledged in 2015 to examine and remove within 24 hours any hateful comments, but in a recent report tracking progress on this front, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that not enough had been done.

Mr Maas said Twitter took down only 1 per cent, and Facebook 39 per cent, of the content reported by users that was deemed to flout Germany's anti-hate speech laws.

Google's YouTube video-sharing platform fared far better, with a rate of 90 per cent, according to a government study cited by the minister.

Beyond hate speech and fake news, the draft legislation also covers other illegal content, including child pornography and terrorism- related activity.

The companies would have 24 hours to remove any posts that openly violate German law after they are flagged by users.

Other offensive content would have to be deleted within seven days after it is reported and reviewed.

Executives of the social media groups also risk being slapped with individual fines of up to €5 million in the case of non-compliance.

Under German law, Holocaust denial, incitement of hatred and racist speech are illegal.

But critics warned that the proposed law could stifle freedom of expression. Ms Renate Kuenast, an MP with the opposition Greens, said the fines were "almost an invitation to not just erase real insults, but to wipe out almost everything for the sake of playing it safe".

Facebook said that it was examining the proposed rule, but stressed that it has heavily invested in boosting the resources of its content review team.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Government said on Monday that it was reviewing how to combat fake news as current laws are limited in tackling the issue.


Facebook and Google move to tackle fake news
Social media giant adds tips on spotting bogus reports; search engine rolls out 'fact check' tag
The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2017

SAN FRANCISCO • Internet titans Google and Facebook have rolled out new initiatives that seek to combat the spread of fake news on their websites.

Google, the world's largest search engine, is rolling out a new feature that places "Fact Check" tags on snippets and articles in its news results, reported Bloomberg. The company's parent, Alphabet, had already run limited tests of the feature and yesterday, it extended the capability to every listing in its search pages and massive search catalogue.

Meanwhile, Facebook ramped up the fight against fake news by adding tips for users on how to tell when shared stories are bogus, reported Agence France- Presse (AFP).

The tips included checking website addresses along with searching out other sources or articles on topics. The initiative, which was launched in the United States, France and a dozen other countries on Thursday, added an educational tool in an "awareness display" that will be visible on users' news feeds for three days.

The social media giant also plans to pay fact-checkers to monitor news on its platforms, in the face of sustained criticism that it has not done enough to stop the spread of fake news.

The move to hire fact-checkers marks Facebook's first effort to formalise its relationship with third parties dedicated to debunking bogus stories, including news organisations that are active in the US, France, Germany and the Netherlands, reported the Financial Times. So far, Facebook has formed partnerships with third parties such as Politifact, Snopes, AFP, BFMTV, L'Express, Le Monde and Berlin-based non-profit Correctiv.

Facebook's move came after German ministers approved plans to fine social media firms up to €50 million (S$74.5 million) if they do not proactively remove hate speech and fake news within seven days of posting.

Google is not entirely giving up its usual hands-off approach either: The company is letting others do the fact-checking.

The approach is meant to legitimise or question claims online, Google said in a blog post. Checked search results list the name of the person or group making the assertion and the determination of the fact-checker.

While any publisher can apply to add fact-check labels to content, Google search algorithms will determine whether they appear in results, a spokesman said.

Oral Answer by Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Questions on Fake News -3 April 2017
Oral Reply to Parliamentary Question on False and Malicious Allegations Against the Police by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law -3 Apr 2017
New laws against fake news to be introduced in 2018: Shanmugam

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