POFMA should be used even if the person spreading falsehoods is politically affiliated: S Iswaran

The minister put it down to an 'unfortunate convergence or coincidence' that all of the responding parties so far have been opposition politicians or affiliated with opposition parties.

Sulaiman Daud | January 06, 2020, 04:18 PM

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran believes the best way to maintain public trust in the government and institutions is to "juxtapose the truth with the falsehood", and allow citizens to decide what the facts are.

Speaking in Parliament on Jan. 6, Iswaran also said that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA) should apply to anyone who puts out falsehoods, even if they happen to have political affiliations.

Perception of partisanship

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong had asked for the Ministry of Communications and Information's position on "perceptions of a partisan political bias" over the use of POFMA so far.

POFMA has been used five times in four cases since its first use on Nov. 25, 2019, against Brad Bowyer, a member of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

Since then, it has also been used against social media posts shared by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Lim Tean, leader of the People's Voice party.

POFMA addresses "fundamental" issues

Iswaran said that POFMA had been used to address "issues of fundamental importance" to Singaporeans, such as alleging that the government mismanaged public funds, discriminated against Singaporeans in favour of foreigners and abused police powers.

"Failing to deal decisively with such falsehoods will erode, even undermine, public trust in our institutions, with serious consequences for our democracy."

He added that so far, Correction Directions have been issued to place facts alongside the original posts, so that viewers can read both and draw their own conclusions.

Public interest explained by ministries

Ong also asked the minister how the threshold of "public interest" is determined and measured, in deciding whether to use POFMA.

Iswaran responded that in all the cases POFMA has been used so far, the reasons for using the law were included in the clarifications issued by the respective ministries.

He added that government corrections can also be viewed on government fact-checker site Factually, while the list of POFMA directions and press releases is also accessible at the POFMA office's website.

Use of POFMA so far has been warranted

In a supplementary question, Ong referred to the POFMA debate in May 2019 in Parliament, in which Iswaran said that POFMA would not be "far-reaching", comparing it to the Broadcasting Act, which was used on average once a year.

However, POFMA has already been used five times.

In reply, Iswaran said that one should not go by the sheer number of times POFMA has been used in this period, and that in each case, the minister ascertained there was a falsehood in accordance with the existing law.

He added that the ministries also issued "clear clarifications" about the falsehoods, including the public interest in using POFMA.

"So if you look at it in its totality, I think there is proportionality, (it) is fit for purpose and we have taken actions according to the situation as warranted."

"Unfortunate convergence of factors"

Fellow NMP Walter Theseira also asked Iswaran to clarify if the identity of the person making the false statement mattered for the public interest threshold. Said Theseira:

"Otherwise it could look, I'm very worried it might look as if the government is setting up speed traps where perhaps opposition politicians drive and not elsewhere, and that's a real concern, I think."

He also asked if falsehoods that are not viral and rapidly-damaging could be addressed with public education instead of using POFMA.

Iswaran replied that the focus is on the falsehood and whether there is a public interest concern that merits action. Said Iswaran:

"And therefore the answer is, and I think what you are alluding to is that the first few POFMA actions appear to have been issued against individuals who are either politicians, or affiliated with political parties, or political parties.

I would say that that is a convergence, some might say an unfortunate convergence or coincidence. (That) also indicates to a certain pattern of communication that exists out there. But whatever the case may be, that is the situation today, but it does not mean that is the situation going forward."

With regard to virality, Iswaran said that it was important not just to look at virality, but the "virulence" of the falsehood, and that such falsehoods deserve a response, which ensures that future such commentary will be guided or advised by POFMA's clarification.

The minister added that the government continues to be actively involved in the education of citizens to ensure that they are well-informed.

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Top image via Gov.sg YouTube.