Accountability and Transparency on Use of POFMA

Parliamentary question, 6 Jan 2020

https://www.pofmaoffice.gov.sg

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Communications and Information (a) how is the public interest threshold of online statements of falsehoods determined and measured under the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA); (b) whether the Ministry will consider recommending that Ministers state which public interest criteria under section 7(b) of POFMA are met and how so, when requesting for a direction to be issued; and © whether the Ministry will consider creating a central listing of all issued directions on the POFMA website.

She also asked the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what is the Ministry’s position on perceptions of a partisan political bias over the recent applications of POFMA and how this may impact public trust in objectivity and independence of the Government’s instruments of combatting online falsehoods; and (b) what steps are being taken to maintain public trust in light of such perceptions, especially given the critical role of public trust in buttressing society against coordinated, malicious fake news.

The Minister for Communications and Information (Mr S Iswaran): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, may I have your consent to take Question Nos 10 and 11 together?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Yes, please proceed.

Mr S Iswaran: Thank you. In recent weeks, four Government Ministries have issued Correction Directions under POFMA to address false statements of fact made by various parties about issues of fundamental importance to Singaporeans. The falsehoods allege that the Government mismanaged public funds, abused police powers and discriminated against Singaporean citizens in favour of foreigners.

Failing to deal decisively with such falsehoods will erode and even undermine public trust in our institutions, with serious consequences for our democracy. The Government and indeed Members of this House have a duty to ensure that our citizens are not misled or misinformed by such falsehoods, and that is precisely why POFMA was enacted.

In all of the POFMA cases so far, Correction Directions have been issued. These Directions require that the facts be placed alongside the original posts so that Singaporeans can read both versions and draw their own conclusions.

Would the Member not agree that the best way to maintain public trust in Government and our institutions is to juxtapose the truth with the falsehood, and allow our citizens to decide what the facts are? And would the Member also not agree that the law should apply even if those who have put out the falsehoods thus far happen to have political affiliations?

Furthermore, POFMA requires that the Minister provide the basis in accordance with existing laws for her or his determination that a statement is a falsehood. In the recent cases, the falsehoods and the reasons for using POFMA were made clear in the clarifications that were issued by the respective Ministries. If the recipient of the POFMA Direction disputes the facts, quick and inexpensive recourse to the Courts is available. These provisions ensure transparency and accountability in the POFMA process.

Finally, the Nominated Member also asked if there are plans to create a central listing of POFMA Directions. All Government Corrections issued under POFMA are already compiled in a section of the Government’s fact-checking website, “Factually”. In addition, the POFMA Office website has a list of the press releases issued together with the POFMA Directions.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for the very considered responses. The Minister had assured the House and the public in May last year when we were debating on the POFMA Bill that the Bill will not be far-reaching using the example of the 39 take-down orders under the Broadcasting Act since 1996. I think he mentioned that it was an average of one a year. POFMA has been used five times within a month, and just two months after coming into effect. Will the Minister please clarify if this considered far-reaching or not?

The second question I have is: the Minister has clarified that POFMA has a central listing on its website. But could I ask the Minister to clarify if the POFMA Office will provide a full description of the public interest rationale each time that POFMA is used according to section 7(1b) of POFMA. There are actually six specific public interest thresholds that are listed there in the Act.

Last but not least, could I ask the Minister: we all agree that we are seeing an alarming rise of fake news. Can the Minister enlighten us on the number of fake news that are monitored and flagged by the POFMA Office and the various Ministries every month? I know that Thailand’s anti-fake news centre talked about 8,000 fake news that were monitored and flagged just within the month of November 2019 alone. Can the Minister assure the House and Singaporeans that the Ministries and the POFMA Office are also monitoring and flagging news to use POFMA on, whether non-partisan or partisan? For example, the fake NUS Facebook group ran for a while without being “POFMA-ed” until Facebook, itself, took it down.

Mr S Iswaran: Mr Deputy Speaker, the Member asked several questions. Let me try and deal with them. First, is the use of the legislation appropriate, measured and fit for purpose? And I think the question is yes. I do not think that you should go by the sheer number of times that it has been used in this period. I think it is a confluence of factors that has led to that. But if you look at the facts of the matter, it is very simple.

In each and every case, the Minister, advised by his officials, has had to ascertain that there was a falsehood in accordance with our existing law. Second, he or she has had to be satisfied that there is a public interest requirement. Third, they have explained clearly — each Ministry in each of its Directions. It has issued a clear clarification as to what the falsehood is and why POFMA is being used, and that includes therefore a broad explanation as to what is the public interest consideration, which is encompassed in there. And thereafter, avenues of appeal are available to the Minister, as indeed some have chosen to exercise and the recourse to Courts is also available.

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

The Member has asked about the public interest rationale according to section 7. The fact of the matter is, and if you read the section carefully, it starts by saying “without detracting from the generality of the point of public interest”, and then proceeds to list a few examples. Those are intended to be illustrative but they are not exhaustive. What that means therefore is when the Act is exercised, the clarification and the explanation given in that Clarification Notice by the Minister will have the evidence to support the public interest case.

I think the final point is on tracking and numbers. We do track but I do not think we have the resources to go around policing this in great degree. But I would add, if indeed the numbers are anything like what the Member has cited for Thailand, if it runs into thousands, then four or five POFMA cases is, I think, quite proportional and not at all far-reaching.

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister. I just have two supplementary questions. The first one is: does the identity of the person making the false statement matter for the public interest test, that is independently of other factors? And I would hope that the Minister could make clear that it is virality, the damage that the statement causes that matters and not who says it. Otherwise, I am very worried that it might look as if the Government is setting up speed traps where perhaps Opposition politicians drive but not elsewhere. And that is a real concern, I think.

Second, would the Minister agree that for the falsehoods which are not viral or rapidly damaging — the slow drip problems — could it be more effective to combat these with education and information rather than a Correction Order? And Parliament had agreed that these powers under the POFMA were necessary to quickly correct falsehoods that might turn a spark into a flame. But those powers do not seem as well-suited for educating the public about our financial reserves or about our labour market policy.

Mr S Iswaran: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am concerned about the time.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Carry on. I think if you need an extension, the Leader of the House will move the extension. Leader, would you like to move the extension?

REVISION OF QUESTION TIME

The Leader of the House (Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien): Deputy Speaker, may I seek your consent and the general assent of Members present to move that Question Time at this day’s sitting be exempted from the provisions of Standing Order No 22(1) so as to enable Question for Oral Answer Number 12 to be completed.

Deputy Speaker: I give my consent. Does the Leader of the House have the general assent of hon Members present to move?

Hon Members indicated assent.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Leader, please proceed.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, “That notwithstanding Standing Order 22(1), Questions for Oral Answers set down on the Order Paper for today be taken until the completion of Question No 12 at this day’s sitting.”

MEASURING PUBLIC INTEREST THRESHOLD AND MAINTAINING PUBLIC TRUST UNDER PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOODS AND MANIPULATION ACT (POFMA) FRAMEWORK

The following question was moved earlier –

Mr S Iswaran: Much obliged, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I think the Member had a few questions on first the question was the identity of the person or entity who puts out the falsehood matter. As I have explained very clearly the process, and I think this was widely convassed during the debate on the Second Reading, the focus is on the fact, or falsehood as it were, in accordance, and do we have the existing legislation that backs that assessment and secondly, whether there is a public interest concerned that merits action. That is a judgement made by the Minister, the domain Minister advised by his officials.

Therefore, the answer is, and I think what the Member is alluding to, is the fact that the first few POFMA actions appear to have been issued against individuals who are either politicians or affiliated with political party or political parties. I would say that that is a convergence, some might say unfortunate convergence or coincidence, but also indicate 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 that is going to be the situation going forward. Because ultimately whether there is a falsehood, there is a public threshold and if so, then what is the appropriate course of action.

The point was also made about falsehoods that are not viral whether we can use alternative mechanisms. I think in talking about, in discussing this matter we have to look by virility, which was one of the points, but remember we also talked about the virulence of the falsehood. And you have to take both into account, because there will be instances where the nature of the falsehood is such that it goes to the core of the credibility and the standing of our institutions and it deserves a response under POFMA. And such a response has the additional impact of ensuring that future such commentary would be guided or advised by this action. So, there is a multiplicty of factors and I think it would be a too blunt to just look at it in terms of one criterion like virility.

Having said that I think the Member’s point was do we have alternative mechanisms, and I want to assure him that we continue to be actively involved in the education of our citizens on this matter. In fact, both Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Walter Theseira have raised this point before during the Second Reading. It is an important point that we have an educated, discerning citizenry, we must ensure they are well informed.

I would add that we have also, if Members would have noticed, in some cases issued statements rather than a POFMA direction. And that has also occurred in the last several weeks. So, I think if you look at it in totality, we have to take into account the overall impact and then we have to consider what is the proportionate response and then, be prepared to take it and if it so happens that some of the people involved are politically affiliated, well, that is the consequence of their actions.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): I thank the Minister again. In terms of the thousands of fake news that are possibly floating around the Internet — and you have turned my question around to answer my other question which is pretty brilliant, I must say — yes, it does not seem far reaching when you turned it around to say that way. But my question was actually given there are thousands of fake news floating around in the Web, does the POFMA Office flag and monitor the non-partisan news and statements that are made. Because there are so many out there, one of which that came to my mind was the fake NUS group and we did not do anything until Facebook took it down themselves. So, my concern is — and the Minister could be right it could just be a convergence of consequences and circumstances — but to have four or five directions POFMA that so partisan in nature, you would understand why there are really genuine concerns from the ground, especially like I said, there are actually thousands of fake news out there that could also be in the public interest to actually POFMA them.

Mr S Iswaran: Mr Deputy Speaker, I did not mean to turn it around. I was merely using the facts that the Member cited to make the case. But having said that I think the key point here is first do we monitor. As I said the resources are limited but yes there is some effort to monitor because we have to ensure that having set out this legislation and its intent, we do follow it through in practice. But in some ways it is no different for the other kinds of activities that we have too. If you take, for example, things to do with online gambling and so on, we try to do some pre-emptive, but we also have to to rely sometimes on reports or inputs coming in and our POFMA Office people combined with several other agencies make the assessment and so on.

So, the answer is yes there is some effort to monitor but, primarily, I think we are looking at those cases which are egregious and those that are egregious will pop up quite naturally and we know what they are and we can deal with it.

The other point was, what was it again? But I was not sure what you were getting to.

Ms Anthea Ong: There arethousands of fake news out there that are non-partisan but actually are in the public interest to be POFMA-ed.

Mr S Iswaran: That is an interesting point because the Member seems to be making the argument that, if instead of four against the previous four cases, we now had eight and four were non-partisan, that would look better?

Well, I beg to differ. But I would say that I think basically we monitor. I think if the Member’s point is, are we only training our sights on certain types of people or organisations, the answer is no. The Member can actually see that from the kind of actions that are being taken. And I think, as I have said and I am prepared to re-state this, which is that our response will be targeted and proportional. I think we have to look at it in the context of all that we have described and we have to take appropriate action.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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