In today’s era of the digital revolution, the rate at which information travels, is unprecedented. This a magnificent revolution for our ever-growing civilisation, but there are people out there who take advantage of others and spread fake news. We are here to teach you how to discern if information is credible and more importantly, what are the legal repercussions if someone spreads fake news.
We receive information from various outlets – television, radio, social media, online, and word of mouth. Information gathered via news channels are mostly trustable. Have you heard someone go, “I heard from somewhere…”? This is the problem with credibility we face today.
How do we know what is reliable? It is simple if the information you have heard is from government authorities or established news channels (e.g. Channel News Asia). Those would be credible. Usually, important information can be found on the respective government websites and such websites will end with “.gov.sg”.
However, one of the problems with spreading of misinformation is the unregulated platforms people use to share such information. WhatsApp Messenger app and Facebook are some of the more common examples of such platforms that people use to spread incredible information. The majority of people who share such information do not know the reliability of the information. However, as the information is usually sensational, they would share them out of entertainment rather than with the intention to inform.
It is important that the information we seek is from reliable sources, especially in times of crisis. If you want daily updates on the latest news or current affairs, you may consider subscribing to official messenger channels on WhatsApp or Telegram where the information disseminated is from official government channels.
Do not share information when you are unsure of its credibility. Take such information with a grain of salt and always cross-reference to official sources to check its credibility.
- Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA)
Though people who share misinformation are not the masterminds, they are would likely be responsible for any consequences. The governing law for such matters is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA).
- What is POFMA?
POFMA is a recently enacted law, with the sole purpose of curbing the spread of misinformation and false statements. With a major increase in fake news and misleading information, it often causes a rippling effect on our society. For example, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a rumour began circulating that Singapore would enter ‘lockdown’ and people would not be allowed to travel outside of the region they live in. This caused hysteria led to panic buying and hoarding.
POFMA serves to safeguard against false statements of facts, prevent the use of online platforms for such purposes and to fight against information manipulation. Such online platforms include social media and other forms of electronic communication.
- Who can be Liable under POFMA?
Everyone ranging from individuals to corporations can be liable. However, there are exemptions under section 7(4) of the POFMA as it does not apply to the doing of or any act for the purpose of, or that is incidental to, the provisions of –
An internet intermediary service;
A telecommunication service;
A service of giving the public access to the internet; or
A computer resource service.
- What are the Legal Implications?
According to section 7(1) of the POFMA, it states that a person must not do any act in or outside Singapore in order to communicate in Singapore a statement knowing or having reason to believe that it is a false statement and the information is likely to –
- be prejudicial to the security of Singapore;
- be prejudicial to the public health, safety, tranquillity or finances of Singapore;
- be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries;
- influence the outcome of an election to the office of President, a general election of Members of Parliament, a byelection of a Member of Parliament, or a referendum;
- incite feelings of enmity, hatred or illwill between different groups of persons; or
- diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, an Organ of State or a statutory board.
If someone is found guilty of an offence under section 7(1), he or she will be punished under section 7(2) and will be liable of a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to an imprisonment term not exceeding 5 years or both. However, if the offender is a non-individual such as an online media platform, the punishment is steeper, a fine not exceeding $500,000 might be imposed.
However, under section 7(3), if someone creates a fake online account or a bot (i.e. a computer program made or altered for the purpose of running automated tasks), for the sole purpose mentioned above, he or she is liable to a fine not exceeding $100,000, or to an imprisonment term not exceeding 10 years or to both. In the case where the offender is a non-individual, it is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000,000.
Part 3 of the POFMA – Individuals and Non-individuals
There are two types of directions that may be issued in order to prevent a further spread of fake news, misinformation or false statement. These directions are found under Part 3 and Part 4 of the POFMA.
According to Part 3 of the POFMA, any Minister may issue a direction, namely a Correction Direction or a Stop Communication Direction, under section 11 and 12 respectively.
Correction Direction (CD)
Under section 11, the CD is issued to anyone who has communicated a false statement and they must do one or both of the following:
publicly announce that the initial statement was false; and/or
publicly inform where the correct information can be found.
The CD may also require the person whom it is issued to place a notice at a specified location online, or in the newspaper, or other printed publication. It is important to note that a person who communicated a false statement of fact may be issued a CD even if the person does not know or has reason to believe that the statement is false.
Stop Communication Direction (SCD)
Essentially, an SCD is to stop a person who has previously communicated a false statement by a certain time. It also requires the person whom it is issued to stop communicating any statement that is substantially similar to the previous false statement.
Similar to the CD, an SCD may also require the person whom it is issued, to publish publicly a notice of the corrected statement in a specified newspaper or other printed publication.
To stop communicating in this context means that the author of the false statement must take the necessary steps to ensure that the false statement is no longer available on or through the internet.
In the event that the person whom the Part 3 Directions have been issued, fails to comply with said orders, that person will be guilty of an offence under section 15 of the POFMA. The individual is liable to either a fine of not more than $20,000 or an imprisonment term, not more than 12 months or to both. If it is a non-individual, a non-compliance of the Part 3 Directions, can result in a fine not more than $500,000.
Part 4 of the POFMA – Internet Intermediaries and Providers of Mass Media Services
If sanctioning and penalizing the creators of the fake news is not enough, internet intermediaries such as Google and Facebook, and providers of mass media services such as YouTube may be directed to do something about it. Any Minister may issue one of the following Directions under Part 4 if the following conditions are satisfied:
Material that contains a false statement of fact has been or is being communicated;
The Minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the Direction.
Targeted Correction Direction (TCD)
A TCD, according to section 21 of the POFMA, may be issued to the internet intermediary service that host the platform where the false statement of facts has been or is being communicated, requiring it to issue a notice to all end-users (i.e. anyone who had access to the fake news) containing one or both of the following:
a statement clarifying that the material in question (false statement of facts) is false;
where end-users can find the correct statement of fact.
The TCD may also require the internet intermediary service whom the TCD was issued to do one or more of the following. Issue the correction notice to all end-users who possess the false statement or whom they know had access the false statement
Disabling Direction (DD)
A DD, under section 22 of the POFMA, may be issued to an internet intermediary whose service was the platform used for the misinformation to be communicated. The internet intermediary will be required under this direction to disable access to the misinformation for all end-users. Further, the internet intermediary may also need to communicate a correction notice to all end-users.
General Correction Direction (GCD)
A GCD, under section 23 of the POFMA, may be issued to an internet intermediary, newspaper, broadcaster, telecommunications service provider or any other prescribed person. A GCD is issued to communicate a correction notice to all its receivers through publication in their respective platforms.
What Happens if an Online Platform Refuses to Cease Spreading Fake News?
According to section 32(1) of the POFMA, the Minister may declare an online location as a declared online location, if the following two conditions are met:
3 or more materially different false statements that are subject of one or more active Part 3 or Part 4 Directions, or both, have been or are being communicated in Singapore on the online location;
at least 3 of those false statements had first been communicated in Singapore on the online location within 6 months before the date the Declaration is made.
When the owner or operator of the online location (regardless of whether the individual is in Singapore or not) is issued a Declaration, may be required to communicate in the specific manner in Singapore to any end-user who has accessed the online location, a notice that the online location is the subject of a Declaration, this is under section 32(1)(f) of the POFMA.
Under section 32(5) of POFMA, when a Declaration is made and before it is in effect, the relevant authority must (a) publish a notice in the Gazette stating that a Declaration has been issued under this section; and the URL, domain name, or any other unique identifier of the online location; and (b) make reasonable efforts to give a copy of the Declaration to the owner or operator of the declared online location.
If the owner or operator of the declared online location fails to comply with section 32(1)(f) of the POFMA, he will be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction under section 32(6) of the POFMA, to a fine not more than $40,000 or an imprisonment term not more than 3 years or to both. For non-individuals, a fine of not more than $500,000 may be imposed.
If the accused facing a charge under section 32(6), can prove that he or she did not know and had no reason to believe that a Declaration was made in relation to the online location.
Access Blocking Order (ABO)
An ABO may be issued where:
paid content included on a declared online location is communicated in Singapore after a prescribed period starting on the date the Declaration concerned came into effect; and
the Minister is satisfied that after the Declaration came into force, one or more end-users in Singapore have used or are using the services of an internet service provider to access the declared online location
The Minister if deems it necessary may direct the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to order internet access service providers or internet intermediaries to take reasonable steps to disable access to end-users in Singapore to the declared online location where the false statement was made available.
Failure to comply with the ABO renders the internet service provider or internet intermediary liable to a fine of not more than $20,000 for each day that the order is not complied with, up to a total of $500,000.
Seeking Legal Advice?
The information provided above does not constitute legal advice and is purely informative. If you are facing a situation as described above, book a consultation with our lawyers to find out more and seek legal advice.