While President Trump liberally applies the label “fake news” to any reporting he wants to discredit, other authoritarian governments have weaponized the term as an opportunity to suppress civil society. Using “fake news,” they create narratives to justify creating more tools of control and oppression, at the expense of trust-building and openness, two crucial elements in fighting the spread of disinformation.
In Singapore, the government frames the issue as one of vulnerability and security. “Fake news” was included in a five-part television series on national-security threats, alongside lone-wolf attacks, cyberterrorism and chemical attacks.
“Disinformation can destroy lives, disrupt the economy and damage our collective identity as a nation,” warned the Ministry of Home Affairs in a post on its website to accompany an episode of the broadcast.
The city-state in southeast Asia convened a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods and gave the public only a few weeks beginning in mid-January to send in public feedback — not a lot of time for such a complex issue. Their remit is to consider specific measures, including legislation, to combat falsehoods. But K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s law and home affairs minister who is also a member of the committee, already said last year that legislative action is a “no-brainer”.
National security is a convenient excuse that can obscure all manner of sins. The hand-wringing from the government, dutifully reported and amplified in Singapore’s pro-establishment mainstream media, has created an impression of a tiny, vulnerable nation in a big, wide world of danger. One is carefully led to the conclusion that something must be done, and fast.
But Singapore, an island country that’s effectively been a single-party state for decades, already has a wide range of legislation that curbs free expression and public discourse. Under existing laws, bloggers can be sued for defamation, private Facebook posts can trigger contempt of court proceedings, and journalists can be investigated and issued warnings just for doing their jobs. There are also laws against actions to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes” or the intent to “wound religious feelings” — it was under the latter that teenage video blogger Amos Yee was prosecuted in 2015 and 2016. He was granted political asylum in the United States last year after immigration officials found that his prosecution had amounted to political persecution.
Recent years have also shown an increased clampdown on dissent and civil-society space. Activists have had their homes searched and their property seized, all without needing a warrant (as is allowed under Singaporean law). A human-rights activist is being charged with vandalism, among other charges of organizing “illegal assemblies,” for posting two sheets of paper in a subway car. Proposed amendments to the Films Act include expanding the power to search and seize without warrant beyond police officers to civil servants. There is no Freedom of Information Act, so the government often has a monopoly over extensive, in-depth data.
Once this background has been filled in, the concern over the introduction of any further legislation to regulate online space — one of the few spaces in which Singaporeans can still find freedom to engage in political discussion—is clear. While Trump might dream of silencing challengers to his power, the Singapore government has historically been both willing and able to make such notions a reality. In Parliament, where the majority People’s Action Party holds more than 80 percent of the seats, any proposed legislation can be easily voted through.
The irony of the situation, though, is that efforts to outlaw “fake news” or to further regulate online space might actually do more to create an environment for disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories to thrive.
Many Singaporeans already approach the mainstream media with caution; it is widely accepted that the mainstream media is heavily influenced by the government, a view substantiated in accounts given by former journalists. In an environment where civil liberties are restricted and the government is seen to have a hand over what one reads, sees and hears, one gets the semblance of public trust, but not the substance.
When a society lacks transparency and feels that all its main media sources are passed through filters determined by the powerful, that is when “fake news” thrives. In the absence of an independent, credible press, people go looking for other sources — sources which might not adhere to ethical or professional practices. It is in this vacuum of trusted information that “fake news” takes the strongest hold.
Disinformation is an issue worth tackling. But responses need to be carefully balanced against curbs on freedom of expression, and cannot be undertaken with haste. Singaporeans don’t need more laws to tell us what we can or cannot say; what we need are genuine engagement and openness, so we can be better equipped to come to our own conclusions.
Kirsten Han is a journalist and writer in Singapore.