Facebook blocks States Times Review page from S'pore users

Dead to users in Singapore.

Belmont Lay| February 18, 10:50 PM

Editor's note, Feb. 19, 8.30am: The article was updated to provide additional information on the government's decision to block access to STR.

The States Times Review Facebook is dead -- to users in Singapore.

Facebook has blocked access to the STR page, rendering users in Singapore unable to view the contents of the page.

This was after Facebook was instructed to do so on Monday, Feb. 17 by the office overseeing the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran directed the POFMA Office to order Facebook to block Singapore users from accessing STR’s page.

The STR Facebook page is owned by Alex Tan, a Singaporean who claims he is now an Australian.

Shutting down and changing name

Prior to being blocked, STR said on Tuesday it was shutting down to meet the government’s compliance requirements.

It then announced that The Real Singapore is taking over its Facebook page and website and it would handed to another person named Melanie Tan.

The STR Facebook page vanity URL was then changed to facebook.com/THEREALSINGAPORE.

But such an action failed to stop it from being blocked by Facebook.

Facebook told CNA: "We’ve repeatedly highlighted this law’s potential for overreach and we’re deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore,” said the spokesperson.

The social media giant also said it was "legally compelled" to block access to the page, and that it believes "orders like this are disproportionate" and "contradict the government’s claim that POFMA would not be used as a censorship tool".

The STR website itself has been inaccessible from Singapore for months already.

Iswaran: "STR did not comply"

Speaking on the sidelines of the Hindu Endowment Board's briefing to leaders of Hindu temples on Feb. 18, Iswaran mentioned MCI’s recent actions against Tan and the STR Facebook page in the context of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Iswaran said the government needed to "act swiftly" to prevent falsehoods from causing anxiety, fear and panic.

He said Singaporeans faced "both a healthcare challenge and a psychological challenge".

He said: "On the psychological side, it is essential that on the one hand, we put out timely and accurate information so that our citizens are well-informed and understand what is happening... but at the same time, it is in circumstances like this that there also is a propensity for perpetuating falsehoods."

Iswaran added that "STR did not comply" to the government's requirements.

He noted that what STR did instead was to change the vanity URL, which is not the requirement under the law.

Iswaran decided to issue a further direction under Section 34 of the Act to Facebook to disable access, for Singaporeans to not be able to access the site.

"So it is a disabling notification and Facebook has since complied, and the site has now been disabled", Iswaran said.

Declared Online Location

The STR page has repeatedly failed to comply with at least three correction directions since November 2019.

Facebook had issued a correction notice in 2019 for one of STR's post.

STR’s Facebook page was then designated as a Declared Online Location (DOL) on Saturday, a day after Health Minister Gan Kim Yong ordered that the page be served a correction direction for a post containing false claims about the Covid-19 situation in Singapore.

A Declared Online Location is defined by the POFMA Office as "online locations that have carried three or more different online falsehoods that are the subject of active directions issued by POFMA Office".

DOLs are required to carry a notice to warn readers to "exercise caution and do additional fact-checking" when accessing the sites for information.

The STR Facebook page failed to carry a single required notice.

Photos by Thet