Mr Speaker, I rise to speak in support of this Motion.
Let me state from the outset that the issue goes beyond tackling online falsehoods per se. More fundamentally, it is about maintaining our sovereignty as well as the multi-racial nature of our society, by ensuring that those who wish to do us harm by peddling falsehoods online do not succeed. As we have seen in other countries, deliberate campaigns to proliferate falsehoods online have caused panic and confusion, worsened societal fault lines, and eroded trust in public institutions. If unchecked, they may result in grave consequences for the country’s social and political discourse.
2 Let us not forget, Singapore has fallen victim to foreign interference through falsehoods and misinformation before. Minister Shanmugam spoke about The Singapore Herald’s misinformation campaign in the early 1970s. In the same period, The Eastern Sun was exposed by the Government for receiving HK$8 million from a Communist intelligence agency from Hong Kong. The funds were provided on the condition that it would not oppose the People’s Republic of China on major issues and publish news items of the communists’ choice. The newspaper eventually folded in 1971.
3 We were fortunate to nip these in the bud early enough, so that this campaign did not sink our young nation back in the day. But today, such orchestrated campaigns can wreak even more harm. In the Internet age, falsehoods can go viral in seconds. Digital content can be easily manipulated to make it more provocative, and stir emotions more easily. Anyone can publish or share falsehoods online, even from halfway around the world. The net result is that online falsehoods can destabilise societies far more easily than ever before.
4 Take the example of the now-defunct The Real Singapore (TRS) website, which my ministry shut down in May 2015. TRS published doctored articles with sensationalist headlines as click-bait, to increase traffic to its website so as to inflate its readership and earn more advertising dollars.
5 In February 2015, TRS published a false article on a Filipino family complaining about the noise from a Thaipusum procession involving Indian Singaporeans. Such an incident never happened. The article was deliberately fabricated and falsely attributed the incident to innocent parties to fuel anti-foreigner sentiments. It went viral and created tensions between our local Indian community and Filipinos living in Singapore.
6 Fortunately we acted swiftly to prevent TRS from doing further harm. The two editors of TRS were convicted in court for sedition. MCI cancelled their class licence for the TRS website.
7 Recent events worldwide also show that foreign countries can use online falsehoods to undermine confidence and trust in national institutions and electoral processes. It was estimated that 126 million Americans were exposed to 80,000 pieces of Russian-linked content, targeted to influence the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Elections. In the UK, foreign Twitter accounts posted false tweets in the month leading up to the UK referendum, such as how millions of Turkish people would move to the UK if the UK voted to remain in the EU. Such falsehoods aim to influence voters and the outcomes of elections. These outcomes in some cases change the course of a country, like what Brexit appears to have done.
8 Let me clarify that we are not against technology. Technology is agnostic; it is the people and actors abusing technology to spread online falsehoods that are the problem. Indeed, technology has improved our lives in many ways. And while technology can be used to divide societies, so too can it be used to bring people together, such as by connecting communities across the world, or mobilising volunteers during crises.
9 That said, as technology continues to push the frontiers of reality, it will be easier to create false information, and damage societies. For instance, in 2016, professors at Stanford University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg demonstrated how technologists can record a video of people talking and then changing their facial expressions in real-time, effectively manipulating their expressions to reflect the message the perpetrators want to convey. Adobe launched a new product in 2016 called “Photoshop for audio”, which allows users to feed about ten to twenty minutes of someone’s voice into an application. The user can then type any words he or she wants to say, which will be expressed in the same exact voice. The resultant voice sounds virtually indistinguishable from the real and does not sound computer-generated at all. This can be used to impersonate anyone, even Heads of States.
10 Singapore is especially vulnerable to this, for several reasons:
a. First, we are a small and multi-racial society that can be easily overwhelmed by a larger adversary taking advantage of our societal fault lines.
b. Second, Singapore has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world at almost 150%. People can easily access the Internet and social media on their smartphones anytime and anywhere, and hence are more susceptible to the spread of online falsehoods.
c. Third, while we have a population that is technology-savvy, it is an entirely different matter whether we have the ability to discern truth from falsehoods. A Government poll in May 2017 showed that while 1 in 4 Singaporeans frequently came across online news that was not fully accurate; 2 in 3 of them were unable to recognise some or all of their falsities; and 1 in 4 of them admitted to sharing news that they later found was fake.
11 Efforts to tackle this problem are already underway. Organisations such as the Media Literacy Council and government agencies like the National Library Board have developed programmes and resources to raise public standards of media literacy.
12 While public education remains our first line of defence, it is not enough. Mechanisms need to be put in place to respond swiftly to these falsehoods. We need an inclusive approach to address this issue holistically, involving not only the public sector but the private and people sectors too. And we need a broader national conversation about this issue, so everyone has a shared understanding of the threat, and a sense of ownership about the solution.
13 Hence I fully support this Motion to convene a Select Committee on online falsehoods. This will allow us to consult widely and tap on the collective wisdom of the community and stakeholders. We look forward to hearing its deliberations and suggestions so that we can keep Singapore a sovereign, cohesive and united society together.