Singapore’s anti-misinformation law is among the most comprehensive in the world. Here’s why that’s problematic.

June 13, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

When Singapore passed a law that outlawed the spread of false information online last month, news outlets, companies and civil society organizations were quick to condemn it.

“Singapore ‘fake news’ legislation endangers press freedom,” the Committee to Protect Journalists declared a month before the law passed.

“Google says Singapore risks hurting innovation with fake news law,” CNN reported.

“Singapore’s ‘fake news’ law undermines the credibility of academic expertise,” academics chimed in.

The outcry was direct and widespread — but it wasn’t because Singapore is the first country to pass a law that essentially criminalizes sharing social media hoaxes (it isn’t). According to Poynter’s latest tally of anti-misinformation actions worldwide, 49 countries have tried to regulate the spread of falsehoods online.

In Singapore’s case, CPJ and others decried the new anti-misinformation law because of how comprehensive it is — and how it could potentially be used to silence the media.

‘I spent almost a month on a floor’: What it’s like to be imprisoned on false news charges

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act makes it illegal to spread “false statements of fact” in Singapore that compromise security, “public tranquility,” public safety and the country’s relations with other nations, Techcrunch reported. The law has three tiers of sanctions: a fine of up to $37,000 or five years in prison for sharing false information, $74,000 and a 10-year jail term for using fake accounts or bots and fines of up to $740,000 and 10 years in prison for tech platforms that don’t remove such content.

That’s far more detailed than other measures worldwide, such as France or Russia’s recently passed anti-misinformation laws, which focus mainly on punishing those who spread falsehoods online in very specific situations. And, since Singapore’s law grants the government the ability to issue takedown and correction orders, critics say it’s a powerful tool to restrict the press.

“This law will give Singapore’s ministers yet another tool to suppress and censor news that does not fit with the People’s Action Party-dominated government’s authoritarian narrative,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asian representative, in a statement. “Singapore’s online media is already over-regulated and severely censored. The law should be dropped for the sake of press freedom.”

Freedom House has rated Singapore’s press as “not free” and the internet as “partly free.” And restrictive laws aren’t uncommon in Singapore, where it’s illegal to sell gum, spit in public and walk around your home naked.

But critics say the detailed new anti-misinformation legislation could inspire authoritarian regimes worldwide to create similar measures designed to chill media coverage.

“It’s not a stretch to see Singapore’s problematic Big Brother attitude toward internet content being copied by other authoritarian governments in the region,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the Los Angeles Times last month.

Here are three more top trends from this month’s update to our anti-misinformation actions guide:

  1. More governments are creating state-sponsored social media accounts to surface and debunk online misinformation. See Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  2. Instead of creating new laws, several countries are revising existing penal codes to punish misinformers. See Sri Lanka and Taiwan.
  3. As with past updates, more governments are coopting concerns about misinformation to arrest and restrict the rights of journalists. See Bahrain and Benin.

Read the full updated guide below. Have an update, correction or tip for us to look into? Email dfunke@poynter.org or use the Google Form linked here.

A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world