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Problem of fake news could get worse: Desmond Lee  

Cynthia Choo, TODAY

14 November 2017

With technological advances allowing computer software to mimic facial movements and the manipulation of audio and video clips, the problem of “fake news” could get worse, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee on Monday (Nov 13).


“This means that even videos that look real, can very well be fake,” he said, adding it could undermine the trust that many still retain in images and sound recordings.


While regulations are not the silver bullet, he said laws are needed because the efforts by tech companies have been inadequate. “Self-regulation does not seem to be a viable solution,” said Mr Lee at the annual lecture of the Association of Muslim Lawyers.


In June, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said new laws to regulate Singapore’s online space and tackle the spread of fake news are expected to be introduced next year.



Various organisations have tried to reverse-engineer ways that tech platforms parse information to amplify their messages in real time, said Mr Lee on Monday.


For instance, following the deadly Las Vegas shooting last month, conspiracy theories about the gunman, Stephen Paddock, being a liberal were spread by right-wing sources to stir up sentiment against the American left.


The claims were unproven and came from non-credible sources, but Facebook’s “Safety Check” page – a feature that helps people connect to family and friends during a crisis – had ended up briefly promoting a story that Paddock was a “Trump hater”.


False information and online platforms have been used by various parties but governments worldwide are struggling to respond effectively, said Mr Lee.


Singapore is especially vulnerable to “serious harm” from the rapid spread of false information, he said. This is because it is a dense, multi-racial and religiously diverse country with high rates of Internet penetration.


The government is tracking international developments closely and keeping an eye on cutting-edge research, he said.


Other countries have initiated regulations to tackle fake news. The German Network Enforcement Act, for instance, came into force last month. It obliges social networks with more than two million German users to take down “manifestly unlawful” material within a day of it being reported, and content that is less obviously illegal after seven days.


The failure to meet the deadlines could lead to fines of up to 50 million euros, said Mr Lee, who is also Second Minister for National Development.


Italy and the Philippines are also debating laws to combat false information online and Vietnam has drafted a decree to tackle the spread of such information on social networks.


The problem of misinformation is not new but its scale has grown exponentially in recent years, said Mr Lee to an audience of about 130 at the MND Auditorium.


Back in 2007, a doctored image of a halal label on pork sold in NTUC FairPrice was widely circulated via e-mail, prompting checks by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

Though debunked, the image resurfaced again in 2014, forcing the supermarket chain to again respond with public statements.

The first line of defence against fake news is media literacy, said Mr Lee.

Although asking people to verify the authenticity of everything they read is not easy or instinctive, he said the public should play its part by staying alert and calling out false information when they see it.

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