Mothership Explains: Someone's spreading fake news about you online. What can you do?

You can't POFMA others, but courts can order individuals or companies to correct fake news under POHA, in ways similar to POFMA. Confusing? We try to explain.

Nigel Chua | June 08, 2021, 01:43 PM

Picture this: There's been yet another altercation between a cyclist and a lorry driver, and footage of the incident is circulating online.

You follow the news about the incident with some interest, even as netizens debate which road user was responsible for the confrontation.

You can see that the tone of public opinion is growing increasingly aggressive and decide, once again, that you've had enough internet for the day.

However, there is a shift in focus overnight, as the online mob grows increasingly curious about the identity of the individuals involved, moving away from arguing about why cyclists are not paying road tax.

To your surprise, you wake up the next morning to find none other than yourself getting identified as the aggressor in that unfortunately viral road incident.

You now also have to deal with a barrage of missed calls and messages from concerned friends and relatives.

"How can dis b allow??" asks a concerned aunt of yours in the family group chat.

"Shd POFMA them to JAIL!!" insists an uncle whose legal experience comprises two court appearances in 2012, where he failed to challenge a fine that he got for illegal parking.

More pressingly, some have found out where you work, and are spamming comments on your company's social media pages, demanding that you be fired.

Your boss has ominously asked to meet you ASAP.

What can you do when fake news is circulating about you?

There are a few options to deal with fake news is circulating about you.

Spoiler alert, yes, you can call on the authorities to protect you, and protect your reputation (and hence, your job).

But there are also some options that are simply out of the question:

POFMA is for the government, not individuals

First of all, to answer your uncle's well-intentioned but not-well-informed suggestion: No, regular people in Singapore cannot invoke the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to protect their own reputation.

Yes, POFMA, also known as Singapore's fake news law, is supposed to target falsehoods that are being circulated online.

However, POFMA only allows the government to take action.

Furthermore, the law only targets falsehoods that undermine the public interest, such as those impacting Singapore's security, public health, public safety, relations with other countries, and so on.

So what can you do?

You might try to respond to some of the posts on social media, by explaining that you were not the person in the video.

But you can't respond to every post and comment calling you out, nor can you persuade those who are convinced that you are lying.

After all, you are just one person.

You can (and should) report the matter to the police, or to the social media platforms where you were wrongly accused.

But investigations will take time, and things may not move fast enough for you to convince your boss that all of this is nothing to worry about.

This is where the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) comes in.

Individuals cannot POFMA, but can POHA

To bring a case under POHA, you would need to apply to a new specialist court that hears POHA-related matters.

The Protection from Harassment Court, was established earlier this month on Jun. 1, 2021.

And there are a number of actions that the Protection from Harassment Court can order to be done, as quickly as within 24 hours of you filing your case at the State Courts.

These actions are called "civil remedies", and are separate from any punishments that might be meted out for those who have committed criminal offences in the course of spreading fake news about you (such as doxxing).

Civil remedies under POHA

Here are the five different types of civil remedies that can be made under POHA, to combat falsehoods:

  • Stop Publication Order
  • Correction Order
  • Disabling Order
  • Targeted Correction Order
  • General Correction Order

These court orders may require those who published false statements to stop publishing such statements (through a Stop Publication Order); or to correct statements previously made, and to publish further statements saying that the court has deemed the earlier statement to be false (through a Correction Order).

These orders can be made to individuals or entities (such as companies).

The court can also order that an internet intermediary (such as a social media company) correct false statements, and notify its users who have accessed the false statement that the statement has been deemed as false (through a Targeted Correction Order).

It can even go further by requiring the internet intermediary to disable users from accessing the false statements (through a Disabling Order).

POHA court can make interim orders

The POHA court has the the authority to make interim orders, which are are expedited versions of the orders that it can make to prevent false statements from circulating further.

  • Interim Stop Publication Order
  • Interim Notification Order (this is the temporary version of a Correction Order)
  • Interim Disabling Order
  • Targeted Interim Notification Order (this is the temporary version of a Targeted Correction Order)

Interim orders are significant because they can be made on an urgent basis, as the court does not require conclusive proof that the false statements in question are false.

Instead, it only requires evidence which, on a first impression, suggests that the statement is false, provided that there is also evidence that the published statements have caused, or are likely to cause harm.

The court also considers whether it is "just and equitable in the circumstances" to make an expedited order.

Once interim orders are made, they remain in effect until cancelled by the court, or until the court-stipulated expiry date has been reached.

Protection Order for harassment not involving false statements

For other forms of harassment that go beyond the circulation of falsehoods, you can also apply for a Protection Order at the same time.

For example, angry netizens may have started to send cash-on-delivery foodpanda deliveries to your workplace (which would be harassment under POHA, and could also be an offence under other laws), or lurking around your neighbourhood to try and confront you (which would be considered stalking under POHA).

A Protection Order from the court can state specifically that the above behaviours are out of bounds.

There is also the option of an Expedited Protection Order, which is for urgent cases.

If you apply for an Expedited Protection Order, it will typically be heard by the court within 48 to 72 hours, and if there is violence or risk of violence, it will be heard within 24 hours, according to the State Courts website.

What happens after the court makes these orders?

Of course, the above court orders may not be enough to deter a highly dedicated or malicious offender.

But, if they breach any of the court orders, they will face penalties for contempt of court, on top of any other criminal penalties they may also be slapped with.

A breach of a court order under POHA will also allow you to file a Magistrate's Complaint against the offender, who will then have to answer to the court.

POHA and POFMA similar in some ways

The actions that can be taken under POHA and POFMA are quite similar in that they both target falsehoods, and can be directed not only at individuals who publish them, but also the companies and entities who have had a part to play in spreading these falsehoods.

Under both laws, individuals and entities can be directed to stop publishing certain false statements, and can also be required to correct a previous statement, together with acknowledgement that the previous statement is false.

The two laws also adopt the same definition of what makes a statement false:

"[Under POHA] a statement is false if it is false or misleading whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears."

"[Under POFMA] a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears."

But of course, differences remain.

Differences between action under POHA and POFMA

As mentioned previously, POFMA targets falsehoods that undermine the public interest.

POHA on the other hand, targets falsehoods that affect a specific claimant, or group of claimants.

This explains why a court order under POHA has to be started by the claimant(s), who will then need to bear the costs of their own application.

On the other hand, orders under POFMA are made by ministers, and administered by the POFMA Office (under the Infocomm Media Development Authority), at the expense of taxpayers.

How to apply for court orders under POHA

It's possible to file a POHA claim without the help of a lawyer.

You will need to use the following form:

Screenshot of "Form 1 - Originating Summons" via State Courts' list of common forms for POHA applications.

You also have to compile supporting evidence into what the court calls an affidavit, or in other words, a signed statement of the evidence being submitted. The affidavit must be officiated by a Commissioner for Oaths, and you may choose to see one for your POHA affidavit at the State Courts, for a S$10 fee.

The two documents should then be filed in person at the CrimsonLogic Service Bureau, located at Level 1 of the Supreme Court Building. Filing fees are S$100.

If you are hiring a lawyer, however, the documents can be filed through eLitigation, an online service which registered law firms can access.

Simplified application process

If the above steps seem intimidating, you'll be glad to note that there's a simplified version of this process for certain kinds of claims.

The simplified process is for cases which do not involve the following:

  • Claiming for damages of more than S$20,000;
  • Claiming against more than five respondents;
  • Claiming with any co-claimant; or
  • Bringing a claim for a situation where the incidents of harassment happened more than two years ago.

In other words, if you are making a claim only for yourself, against five respondents or less, for something that took place less than two years ago, and you are claiming damages of up to S$20,000 or less (or not claiming damages), you can make a simplified claim, through the State Courts' Community Justice and Tribunals System (CJTS) here.

The simplified process also comes with lower court fees.

Here's an overview of the process:

Screenshot via MinLaw.

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Top image by Nigel Chua, for illustration purposes