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Facebook launches Singapore fact-checking as threat of fake news legislation looms

As the debate around Singapore’s fake news legislation grows heated, Facebook has announced the extension of its fact-checking service in the country and committed to de-prioritising or curtailing false stories and posts.

The social networking site, which had a key role to play in the debate around the need for fake news laws, said that Singapore would join Australia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines in coming under the purview of its fact-checking services powered by Agence France-Presse.  

Stories in English, Mandarin and Malay would be subject to monitoring by a dedicated AFP resource in Singapore coordinating with a regional team in Hong Kong, supported by a global network of fact-checkers, it said.

The criteria for checking would be editorial interest, the extent to which it was shared and whether it has entered public debate.

Stories passed on to AFP by Facebook, flagged by its own user community and by its algorithm, would be rated by the news organisation. Content that was deemed either false, or a mixture of truth and falsehood, or a misleading headline would have its distribution curtailed.

Additionally Facebook said in a statement: “This program is in line with Facebook’s three-part framework to improve the quality and
authenticity of stories in the News Feed. When third-party fact-checkers write articles about a piece of content, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed.

“Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a post or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.”

Facebook had previously drawn a line against becoming arbiters of truth and claimed it would only remove content that leads to voter suppression or incited violence. This had traditionally been a bone of contention, resulting in proposed fake news legislation taking a hardline on removing content and on the profitability of platforms that do not comply with takedown notifications.  

In the meantime, Singapore’s fake news laws which are up for discussion in Parliament next Monday were at the centre of heated debate throughout this week.

There have been changes suggested by three nominated members of parliament (MPs appointed by the president unaffiliated to any political party), supported by legal experts.

In a joint statement three NMPs – Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira – agreed about the necessity for legislation against fake news, but expressed their misgivings about the bill in its current form. They said: “Many in Singapore and globally have expressed concern that the bill grants the executive far-reaching powers to control online communications.

“We share these concerns, as such tools could be used by the executive and future governments to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes. The question is: how do we mitigate such concerns, while ensuring that government has the ability to deal with the full range of threats posed by deliberate online falsehoods?”

The amendments suggested by them included: “A clause that sets out key principles that guide the exercise of powers under the Act; requirements that any directions issued are publicly justified; requirements that the appeals process is expedited; and the creation of an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide routine oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act.”

The full joint statement can be read here

This was further supported by senior counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal of law firm Clifford Chance who pointed to the wide definition of “”false statement of fact” and a Minister’s determination of “public interest”. He said: “These requirements set a very low bar for a Minister’s exercise of the extensive powers under the Bill.”

In response to Singh’s statements, Law Minister K Shanmugam’s press secretary issued a counterpoint that argued the legislation narrows the government’s powers instead of expanding them: “The powers proposed to be given to the government under the Bill, and the public interest grounds on which the government can exercise its powers, are actually narrower than the Government’s existing powers.”

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