STR’s fake news article shared by 7 Facebook users in “concerted effort” to reach 800,000 people
The Police investigation into the fake article is in progress.
You may have noticed that trying to access the States Times Review (STR) website while in Singapore brings you to this page instead:
After publishing a false news story, and refusing to take it down when requested, the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) blocked access to the site on Nov. 9.
STR’s article was false
In response to a question from MP Murali Pillai, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong addressed the issue of STR’s fake news in Parliament on Nov. 20.
On Nov. 5, STR alleged in a story that Singapore had struck favourable deals on the High Speed Rail and the Water Agreement with Malaysia, in return for influencing local banks to corruptly launder funds related to the 1MDB scandal.
It also alleged that Singapore did nothing to assist Malaysia in the ongoing investigations.
Tong said that the story was demonstrably false and shared that Singapore was the first jurisdiction to take action against those involved in the 1MDB scandal.
Singapore authorities have taken action on the 1MDB scandal
Firstly, Singapore commenced investigations into 1MDB funds in March 2015. As a result, two banks were shut down and eight others were fined $29.1 million.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore also seized $240 million worth of assets, of which $120 million belonged to Jho Low and his immediate family.
It also issued arrest warrants and requested Interpol Red Notices for Low and his proxy Tan Kim Loong.
Singapore has also charged and convicted five individuals for offences related to the 1MDB scandal, and investigations into other suspects are ongoing.
Investigation into STR article is ongoing
Tong noted that all this was publicly available information.
However, despite the High Commission of Singapore in Malaysia releasing a public clarification and rebuttal, STR did not carry it.
In fact, STR’s founder and editor Alex Tan dared Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to sue him for libel.
After refusing to take down the article, and having access to his site blocked by IMDA, Tan announced that STR would shut down.
However, a strikingly similar website, the Singapore Herald, then sprang up as a spiritual successor.
Tong said that a Police report was made on Nov. 8 about the article, and action will be taken pending the conclusion of the Police’s investigation and advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Fake news spread quickly
Tong described how the fake article spread online.
A similar article was first published in May 2018. It was then repackaged and published again on Nov. 5, 2018, after using a quote from the Sarawak Report as a peg to make the same false claims.
The Sarawak Report has refuted STR’s claims.
Tong revealed that a small group of just seven Facebook users made a “concerted effort” to share the article in various Facebook groups, whether related or not.
Due to their actions, this caused the article to be viewed by potentially 800,000 people who were members of those groups.
The article itself was shared about 1,600 times as at Nov. 8, 2018.
On Nov. 7, this re-packaged article was reproduced on Malaysian website The Coverage.
The article on The Coverage was then picked up by mainstream Malaysian Chinese-language newspaper China Press. By Nov. 8, it had been viewed 45,000 times.
Facebook declined to deny access to the post
As the article contained prohibited content, IMDA asked Facebook to deny access to the post on STR’s Facebook page.
However, Facebook refused. It did not consider that there were sufficient grounds to deny access to the post.
Tong said that Facebook’s reluctance was surprising, as it had previously given assurances to Singaporean authorities that they would work closely together to address deliberate online falsehoods.
However in this case, Facebook declined to take action despite the article being an example of such a falsehood.
Tong noted Facebook only considered prohibiting content that had “the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”.
He further said:
“There are many situations where serious harm is caused even though there is no potential for ‘imminent violence or physical harm’. And as Members will appreciate, the slow drip of poison, over a period of time, can one day burst into violence.
And Facebook will do nothing about it, despite the various statements made in Singapore and elsewhere.”
Calling out Facebook as allowing itself to be a platform to spread lies, Tong said that this incident demonstrates why service provider platforms cannot be relied on to protect the public from disinformation campaigns.
Tong, who served on the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, said that legislative powers were needed.
Top image adapted from States Times Review’s Facebook page.