Some efforts are more sincere than others
Even on April Fools’ Day, Singapore’s government was in no mood for fun. K. Shanmugam, the law minister, warned lawmakers of the dangers of unregulated speech, handing them a list of “offensive song lyrics”, which included hits by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Shortly afterwards the government introduced a bill in parliament to curb fake news. If passed into law, which is likely, it would be among the world’s most far-reaching. Under its provisions, those found guilty of spreading “false statements of fact” online face fines of up to S$1m ($740,000) or a maximum of 10 years in jail. Social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter would be required to take down posts the government deems false or to publish corrections.
Although few Asian governments have drawn up plans as extensive as Singapore’s, many say they are looking for ways to limit online disinformation. Among the region’s autocrats, this is usually code for suppressing criticism. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand’s military junta, recently denounced social media as an incubator for “incorrect thinking”—by which he appeared to mean complaints about the election he rigged last month. His government has pushed through several laws that allow it to monitor and curb online dissent.
For governments with purer motives, striking a balance between public security and civil liberties is hard. Taiwan’s is worried about disinformation campaigns from China, which it accuses of trying to manipulate Taiwanese elections. This week it announced plans to ban Chinese-owned video-streaming services. The chairman of its National Communications Commission resigned on April 2nd, after being criticised for her failure to tackle fake news.
Australia’s parliament, meanwhile, adopted a harsh new law on social media this week in response to the recent mass shooting in New Zealand, which was live-streamed on Facebook and which users tried to share more than a million times. The law allows the authorities to hit social-media companies that fail to remove material showing acts of terrorism, rape or murder with fines of up to a tenth of their annual turnover. Executives, both in Australia and abroad, can be jailed if their companies do not make adequate efforts to remove such posts.
Critics accuse the government, which faces an election next month, of attempting to capitalise on public horror at the atrocity in New Zealand. The bill was written in a weekend and rushed through parliament in just three days before politicians returned to their constituencies to begin campaigning. It includes no detail on how quickly the content concerned must be removed. Even with bulked-up teams of moderators and new artificial intelligence, it is difficult for firms to expunge offensive material instantly. Complying with the law “would be impossible”, says Fergus Hanson of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank.
At least the type of content at issue is relatively clear. Singapore’s law gives ministers the initial right to decide what information is both false and injurious to the public interest. That encompasses any untruth that might harm “public tranquillity”, “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries” and “public confidence in the performance of…the government”. Singaporeans will still be free, the government insists, to express whatever opinions they like. Whether Ms Grande’s and Lady Gaga’s fanciful lyrics count as opinions or falsehoods, the government has not said.