Technology

When the Government Says You're Fake News

Countries across the world tackle political misinformation with authoritarian censorship.

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In the midst of a massive financial corruption scandal in Malaysia that led to the ouster of the country's prime minister, an independent online news outlet named States Times Review published a story last November claiming that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was being investigated and that his country's banks may have played a role in money laundering.

Leaders of Singapore's central bank were outraged, calling the claims "baseless and defamatory." The country's state-run media development agency ordered the story to be taken down. Site founder Alex Tan, a Singaporean political activist living in Australia, refused. So Singapore blocked access within the country to States Times Review and then asked Facebook to remove a post promoting the story. The social media site declined.

Singapore's leadership didn't take the refusal well. In April, legislation was introduced that would empower the government to demand that sites take down stories deemed—by the state—to be "fake news." Officials would also be able to force social media sites such as Facebook to include "warnings" on posts declared false. Resisting these orders and maligning the government could earn a person or company fines of up to $740,000 and potentially incarceration.

Representatives of the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association of leading internet companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, warned that the bill "gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is true or false." The group calls the plan an "overreach" that "poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world."

Yet Singapore is not the only government using threats of punishment to force online platforms to police content. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that allows government officials to charge individuals and online media for spreading fake news or information that insults state symbols or officials. As in Singapore, violators face fines and potentially jail time.

When critics yelled "censorship" at the Russian government, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointed out that this area of "fake news" is "under strict regulation in many countries of the world, even in European states."

Peskov didn't specifically reference France, but it's worth looking at that country's efforts to control the spread of false information online. Last November, at the urging of President Emmanuel Macron, the French parliament passed a law allowing judges to order the removal of what they deem "fake news" during the three months before an election. It also gave the country's national broadcasting agency the authority to suspend foreign television channels that distribute allegedly false information that might affect a French election. State-run Russia Today interpreted that part of the law as explicitly targeting itself and complained about the censorship. Then Russia put into place even harsher laws.

A third component of Macron's policy recently bit the French government on the derriere. The country now requires media companies to disclose who paid for political advertisements and to maintain a database showing who is responsible for sponsored political messages being promoted through their platforms. Rather than deal with these new obligations, Twitter stopped accepting political advertisements in France altogether. As a result, the company decided in April it would not run government ads encouraging citizens to vote in May elections for the European Parliament.

Eventually, Twitter decided to make an exception, tweaking its policy to allow the French government to run its voting advertisements. But the company is otherwise refusing to run paid campaign ads on Twitter in France.

This single exception is not enough for some officials, who are upset that their own political advertising needs are being affected by the blanket ban. Three French ministers said in a public statement that Twitter should simply accept the government's transparency demands (regardless of the additional financial or labor commitments the company might have to take on to do so) and run their ads.

That France, Russia, and Singapore are all on the same page is a stark reminder that governments almost universally want to stop the distribution of some political messages while mandating the distribution of others.