Activists in Asia fear anti-disinformation efforts will suppress free speech

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In Singapore and South Korea, fact-checking initiatives have been effective in fighting Covid-19 disinformation. But other tactics – like confusing or overly broad laws – could be used to maintain political power. 

After a false rumor circulated in early February that shortages of daily supplies were imminent, residents in Singapore went into a buying frenzy. In nearby South Korea, the impact of fake news was evident a month later, when 52 church-goers were infected after participating in a ritual prompted by the belief that saltwater can help prevent Covid-19.

Singapore and South Korea were among the first countries hit by the pandemic – and therefore among the first to deal with the problems of misinformation and disinformation. (Misinformation is false information while disinformation is false information deliberately created to cause harm.) Since the beginning of the crisis, the volume of fake news has increased dramatically in Asia, and is believed to be spread by “political leaders, hyper-partisan groups, some media outlets and religious extremists” with the aim of causing political confrontations and social tensions.

The two countries have very different profiles when it comes to government control over media, freedom of speech, and flow of information. While South Korea ranks 42th in the Reporters Without Borders 2020 Press Freedom Index, Singapore comes in at 152th out of 180 countries. Nonetheless given the severity of misinformation surrounding Covid-19, Singapore and South Korea have used a comparable range of policy tools to dispel fake news concerning the pandemic.

Some tools have been effective, but other approaches have not worked as well and, in certain cases, have been overzealous, raising questions about whether efforts to fight disinformation have crossed the line into violating free speech.

Proactive tactics in Singapore and South Korea

Both countries have dedicated government websites that consolidate clarifications on false information, as well as initiatives to further media literacy skills. Singapore, for instance, shares clarifications through daily updates on commonly used platforms, reaching a follower count of 900,000 out of a total user base of 4 million on WhatsApp. In South Korea, the daily briefing organized by the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the government portal (source in Korean) that collates Covid-19 news have gained significant traction.

South Korea has also worked to proactively remove misinformation and disinformation from circulation. The South Korean police agency’s cybercrime unit has been investigating the sources of false information and working with site operators and telecommunications regulators to take down untruths that can lead to social confusion. By early February, for instance, the National Policy Agency had already investigated more than 40 cases of fake news related to the virus. According to Professor Han Woo Park from Yeungnam University’s Department of Media and Communications, Naver, a large online news platform, has also enforced stricter monitoring and auditing routines to stop fake news articles from trending.

Two weaknesses

One problem with these initiatives is that, most of the time, these anti-fake news laws can only target individuals, whereas numerous reports have shown that fake news surrounding Covid-19 can also be initiated by states. Recent research from Stanford University shows that Chinese state media outlets have been prolifically using various social media platforms to spread misinformation or “conspiratorial speculation” related to Covid-19, reaching close to 100 million people worldwide. In addition, recent report by the University of Oxford showed that various states, such as Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have used social media platforms to influence audience abroad. Nonetheless, existing laws are mostly unsuccessful in checking these types of coordinated operations, which disseminate unverified content through fake accounts, Facebook pages and targeted ads.

In other cases, the legal tools used to prosecute individuals for intentionally spreading false information are vague and confusing. In Singapore, two laws – the Miscellaneous Offence Act and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – have been used to prosecute people with the intent of spreading misinformation and disinformation. However, it is often not transparent which law would be used against what offence. “It is not very clear how the government decides when something needs POFMA directions under the law, or when it just needs clarifications,” says Kirsten Han, a journalist who covers Singapore politics and civil affairs. “I think those are the things that only the government knows, we don’t know what the threshold is.”

The cost of free speech?

There is a very real cost to effective anti-fake news measures: citizens’ right to free speech.

Professor Han Woo Park from Yeungnam University believes that both the ruling and opposition parties of South Korea are using the pandemic to justify new fake news laws that could be used to consolidate their respective political mandate. “This kind of law could be used to maintain political power, other than trying to really kick out fake news,” he said.

Likewise, Professor Kyung-sin Park, Executive Director of Open Net Korea, said that the South Korean government’s “patriarchal approach to fake news has its own negative repercussion of forcing people to suspend their own thinking.”

If intellectuals and civil society in South Korea have only been alarmed, in Singapore Covid-related restrictions on free speech have been implemented in more stringent manners.  According to journalist Kirsten Han, Covid-19 has given the government “the narrative to say: Look, in these extraordinary times, isn’t it good that we have this?”

Already, leaders of Singapore’s opposition parties Lim Tean and Brad Bowyer have been served POFMA notices. New Naratif, a notable anti-establishment journalism site, was also not spared: ironically, its video detailing the extent of the law’s reach incurred the ire of the POFMA office.

But the greatest concern expressed by academics and journalists is that these tools could gradually create an environment of self-censorship. “Within the circle of people that I know, there is this consciousness that you know POFMA can catch you, and it makes people hesitate to say things that they feel,” says Han.

These cases show that fake news could indeed be contained with appropriate policy approaches and that transparent communication on public portals has been the most effective measure to combat fake news. For these policy tools to be deployed well, it is important for governments to devise targeted measures that are clearly spelt out to the public to avoid abuse.

Above all, amidst such an unprecedented crisis, free speech activists stress that governments should continue to safeguard civil liberties. “Truth is not given like the ten commandments,” says Professor Park. “They emerge from a multitude of trials, errors, hypothesis, corroborations. Governments should not be too quick in shooting down hypotheses simply for not having been tested.”