Social media companies put ‘revenue above precept’ on faux information, Singapore minister says

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Social media companies are hindered by their commercial interests in fighting fake news, the Singapore Justice Minister stressed the need for the city-state’s law against online lies, which critics say hinders free speech.

K. Shanmugam, who spoke on Thursday in an interview to air on Tuesday’s Reuters Next conference, defended the city-state’s new law against Facebook people’s concerns that it is a censorship tool and fears that rights groups and others will doing is used for political gain.

He said the law is necessary because the platforms that frequently host fake news have business models that rely on “attracting eyeballs”.

The minister pointed to the United States, where lawmakers have also accused social media companies of spreading misinformation about the US election, particularly before last week’s storm on the US Capitol.

“The tendency of internet platforms has been to say: hey, it’s free speech, there should be no regulation,” said Shanmugam, who is also Singapore’s interior minister.

“Let’s be honest, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), profit is really put above principle.”

Shanmugam said a “consensus” had developed around the world that fighting fake news could not be left to technology platforms, although it was unclear how many countries would follow Singapore in regulatory action.

The Law on Protection against Online Lies and Tampering (POFMA), introduced in Singapore at the end of 2019, has been described by the Asia Internet Coalition, an association of Internet and technology companies, as “the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date”.

It enables government ministers, news agencies, social media users, or platforms to issue warnings that their pages or posts contain false statements and to include links to a website for government fact-checking.

There are stricter measures, fines, and even jail terms for non-compliance.

When ordered to block access to a page last year, Facebook contradicted government claims that the law was not a “censorship tool” and joined the rights group by saying it could affect freedom of expression in Singapore.

The government says the law only combats falsehoods and that legitimate criticism and freedom of speech are not affected.

The law caught several government critics, opposition parties and politicians in the run-up to the city-state elections last July and caused concern among right-wing groups such as Amnesty International. The law has not been applied since.

“The fact that some of them are opposition politicians suggests who then engages in such behavior,” Shanmugam said when asked about those who broke the law.

He said the reason the law has not acted since the vote was “because there have been no such statements.”

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Reporting by John Geddie; Editing by Sam Holmes

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