Singapore’s governing People’s Action Party pushed through its anti-“fake news” law in May 2019, justifying it as the key to protecting society from misinformation that would harm public interest. With the COVID-19 outbreak bringing about chaos and disruption across the world, the time for this law to shine is nigh.

Since the end of January, the government has invoked the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, more commonly known as POFMA, in 11 cases involving either people, publications, or platforms. In all these cases, the recipients of the order were required to publish notices saying that their posts contained false statements, and provide a link to a government website with official clarifications.

The content targeted for correction includes claims that a man had died of COVID-19 in late January (there were no deaths at that time; Singapore only reported its first coronavirus deaths in March), claims that an MRT station had been shut down due to the virus (it was still operational), and claims that a club dinner which led to a cluster of infections had been organized by the People’s Association, a statutory board (it hadn't).

False information should be corrected, particularly during a virus outbreak when a population is on edge and misinformation could trigger panic and anxiety. In this way, the government has claimed vindication of its insistence on introducing POFMA. With a deluge of breaking news about the pandemic, POFMA has also fallen off people’s radars.

The fact remains, though, that POFMA hands the government a disproportionate amount of power, with little accountability about what is or isn’t deemed “in the public interest” to take action on. The threshold for intervention remains very low, without any need to demonstrate clear incitement to harm or violence before a government minister issues orders under the law.

Take, for instance, the POFMA order related to the club dinner. What urgent public harm has been caused by Facebook posts suggesting that the People’s Association was involved in organizing the event? Could this not have been clarified via other means? A law like POFMA, with its broad powers and potential penalties like access blocks and defunding of platforms down the line, should not be used merely to help government institutions protect their reputations or save face.

POFMA is not an emergency law; it will last even after this current public health crisis is over. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the law had already been used against political opponents and critics. Civil society organizations have spoken out about how POFMA was used to block access to the website of a Malaysian human rights NGO that made allegations about execution methods in Singaporean prisons. Nothing will stop the government from using the law in this way again, at any time during or after this extraordinary period.

Then there are the ways in which POFMA hasn’t worked. This anti-“fake news” law, for instance, hasn’t been able to stifle misinformation circulating on closed or encrypted chat apps like WhatsApp. A simple survey of my friends alone surfaced a litany of dubious messages received from friends and family members in group chats, from the clearly false (that the coronavirus can’t survive in temperatures above 25 C, when it’s clearly spreading in Singapore, where the average temperature is usually about 26 C–32 C), to the plausible-yet-false (there were multiple “updates” or rumors about lockdowns in Singapore, long before the government announced its current measures), to the downright outrageous (that shoving onions up your nose could kill the virus).

There’s little the government can do to address these endlessly forwarded messages. POFMA might grant authorities legal power to issue orders against closed messaging systems like WhatsApp, but the reality of execution is a totally different issue.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Commuters wait for a transport to leave the Woodlands Causeway across to Singapore from Johor, hours before Malaysia imposes a lockdown on travel due to the coronavirus outbreak. March 17, 2020.

POFMA is also of limited utility when it comes to state-sponsored misinformation from elsewhere. Chinese propaganda claiming that COVID-19 is an American bioweapon, for instance, circulates in Singaporean circles. CCTV, China’s official state broadcaster which has also been spreading Chinese propaganda about the coronavirus, is available to Singaporean viewers via cable television subscriptions. It’s not clear what a law like POFMA can do in the face of such high-powered “fake news.” (POFMA-ing Xi Jinping is not a viable option.)

When it comes to the government response to COVID-19, POFMA has played a fairly minor role, and its use has largely gone unnoticed by most Singaporeans.

What has made a difference, though, is openness and transparency in public communication.

During this crisis, the government provides daily updates on the situation: confirmed cases, discharged cases, cases in critical condition. A Ministry of Health website collates important announcements, with a dashboard that allows you to look at how things have developed over time. Websites like deliver clear directions about how to pick up state-issued masks, while allows people to do a basic check of their symptoms to help decide if they should seek medical attention. There’s a broadcast list on WhatsApp, or a channel on Telegram that you can sign up for. The ministers and ministries use their Facebook pages if necessary, and these posts are shared widely.

All these measures have done far more to reassure the population and keep us well-informed about the status and severity of the outbreak in our city. It also arms us with the ability to push back against the misinformation that we encounter, whether in chat groups or elsewhere.

The government response to COVID-19 so far has demonstrated that there are many ways we can communicate, interact, and build trust in the system without resorting to POFMA. One can only hope that the authorities remember this lesson.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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