Fake News

Here's What Happens When a Government Demands a 'Fake News' Label on Social Media

Singapore ordered Facebook to attach a "false information" message to a news story written by a government critic.

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"Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information."

That's the wonderfully passive-aggressive note the social media giant has appended to Facebook shares within Singapore of an online news story by Alex Tan, a critic of Singapore's government living in Australia. Facebook has added the note to comply with a law Singapore passed earlier in the year granting itself the authority to demand the social media platform "correct" what the government deems fake news—or else face huge penalties.

The law—the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)—was passed in part due to Tan's regular criticism of the government. Last November, Tan's site, States Times Review, claimed that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was being investigated over financial corruption in Malaysia and that his country's banks may be involved in money laundering. Singapore's central bank objected to this characterization and demanded that Facebook remove a post promoting Tan's story. Facebook refused to comply.

So Singapore passed POFMA and thus ordered Facebook to comply or else face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The law even calls for possible imprisonment for violators.

On Nov. 23, Tan reported that a whistleblower was arrested in Singapore for revealing that a candidate supported by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was an evangelical Christian. Tan, without explaining why, suggested that the candidate's history of attempting to convert people to Christianity marked her as a "religious extremist" trying "to remove the secular status of the country." Singapore disputes that this arrest actually happened and has invoked POFMA to order Facebook to "correct" what it deems to be "fake news." BuzzFeed reports that users in Singapore (and only in Singapore) are now seeing the Facebook note stating that the government says the story isn't true.

Tan has acknowledged to BuzzFeed that he's not sure the arrest happened. He wrote the story based on a tip-off. The Singapore government runs its own fact-checking site called Factually, which insists no such arrest happened and that the government didn't order (as Tan claims) Facebook to shut down a page for a National University of Singapore student group. Facebook shut the page down for violating the site's "authenticity" guidelines after the college's student union said the page wasn't official and was posting misleading articles.

Tan clearly has an axe to grind with the current government of Singapore and is calling for PAP's removal from power and the arrest of Loong for abuse of his position. He may well have been a little quick to believe accusations of bad behavior on the part of Singapore officials.

But that's actually what makes Singapore's behavior all the more concerning. Tan is in exile, living in Australia, and is about to become a citizen there. He's not returning to Singapore. He's not terribly concerned about possible jail time. But he's also small fish compared to the Singapore government (BuzzFeed notes that his site has 53,000 likes on Facebook). It is disturbing to see the government take such heavy-handed actions—including jail threats—to protect its grasp on political power. If the government is threatening Tan over something as small as whether somebody has been arrested or not, is there any sort of fact that would be beneath its observation and interference?

Outside of Singapore, it's hard to look at the information presented here and determine what the "facts" actually are. The Singapore government and PAP have a lengthy history of overly sensitive responses to criticism. Loong has a history of suing critics who accuse him of misconduct. Tan, however, may actually be wrong about the facts in this one story. Would you be comfortable from this distance deciding who is right? Would you be willing to decide which version of the story should be "allowed" to be shared on social media?

The fight now unfolding in Singapore should give people like Sacha Baron Cohen doubts about granting any government—whether in the United States, United Kingdom, or elsewhere—the authority to force Facebook (or any online platform) to fact-check political speech. Such authority will not be used to help the public become more informed about what our politicians and governments are doing. It will inevitably be used to stifle criticism. In Singapore, we already have a real world example of how such power can be abused.

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  1. Who could possibly have seen this coming?

    1. I think making CNN have their anchors give a disclaimer after every commercial break saying ‘At this time we must inform you that CNN inky delivers fake news as our reporting is fraudulent and partisan’ would be fucking hilarious. All the more because it is 100% true.

      1. Well, no, it can’t both include that disclaimer and be 100% true.

  2. The Singapore government runs its own fact-checking site…

    ATTACK WATCH!

  3. Thank God we don’t live in a place like Singapore where the PTB tell you what’s news and what isn’t but a free country instead, with a free press where CNN and the NYT can be relied upon to tell you what’s news and what isn’t. If the government were in charge I might never know that Bret Kavanaugh is a serial rapist and Putin rigged the election for Donald Trump or that Kim Kardashian was spotted in Paris dancing at a night club with that one guy from that one show.

  4. Facebook is located in the U.S. they should tell them to “f” off. they won’t because they want their money. You’d think the billions they have would be enough NOT so they sell out their values. “f” facebook

    1. Interesting how corporations are a facsimile for US Foreign policy: You sometimes do business with undesirable nations if it furthers your interests.

      The next tech billionaire that wags his finger on Twitter about dubious American alliances abroad can shut the fucking fuck up.

    2. I’d bet Facebook has employees in Singapore, and I’m dead sure they get advertising dollars from Singapore companies. There’s always something grabbable.

  5. BuzzFeed reports that users in Singapore (and only in Singapore) are now seeing the Facebook note stating that the government says the story isn’t true.

    I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Singapore. You have got to show me.

    1. Should be easy enough to do. Get a VPN, have it pretend you’re in Singapore, go on Facebook and look at Tan’s account.

      1. Right. I’m dubious of flourish and pageantry and would have to identify as being from Singapore in order for bullshit to be cut through and plain truth to be shown to me.

  6. “…The fight now unfolding in Singapore should give people like Sacha Baron Cohen doubts about granting any government—whether in the United States, United Kingdom, or elsewhere—the authority to force Facebook (or any online platform) to fact-check political speech…”

    Twits like him assume *they* will be the ones to make the choices and so it’s not a problem.

  7. Founding fathers saying “see? I told ya so”.

    1. If the founding fathers would be alive today and learned what Facebook is they would call you a retard for getting your news from there. Then they’d want to know what this whole breakdancing thing is about.

      And vaping.

      They’d be all about vaping.

      Then they’d discover the porn.

  8. Imagine that here. Everything not issued by or officially approved by whichever of the two fuckwit parties is in power at the time would be labelled as fake news.

    I know I’m just a dreamer, but I figure a modicum of critical thinking skills or even just a healthy dose of old fashioned skepticism is all the protection anyone needs from the ravages of fake news, whether it’s actually fake or not.

  9. “would be labelled as fake news.”

    That’s already happening. If you read two different news sources on the same story it becomes apparent someone isn’t being truthful. One story essentially calls the other fake news. We just don’t have governing bodies doing it. (We have a guy doing it, but he’s doing it on his own.)

    We’re Americans though. When do we listen? It wouldn’t matter. The internet has become the new grocery checkout line and media has decided to pander to the types that read those tabloid headlines.

  10. But when the social media company does it without the government’s involvement it’s peachy-keen!

    1. Sure. Because you can switch to a different service that doesn’t, if it bothers you.

  11. Social media giant like facebook should take responsibility that FAKE news are distributed on platforms. They should become out and take appropriate steps to control all

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