POFMA: Protection Or Manipulation?
What are the implications of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)? Frederick Law shares his personal thoughts.
Image from Rice Media.
August 3, 2020
This year’s General Election is the first election to be held with the fake news law in place.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in Parliament in May 2019. POFMA prohibits the communication of false statements of facts that are deemed to be harmful to public interest. The key part of this law, however, is that Cabinet ministers are authorised to order amendments to false statements without having to bring the case in front of a court of law. Offenders face a fine of up to S$50,000 depending on the severity of the falsehood.
Although there has been widespread disagreement on how this would affect freedom of speech in Singapore, this law has proven its worth in the few months it has been in effect. It has been used 55 times since it was passed, and independent political news outlets have borne the brunt of it. The most high-profile case thus far is a news outlet called States Times Review. The outlet was previously active on Facebook and its website, but after being shut down four times as a result of POFMA, its Facebook follower count decimated from 57,000 to 3,000.
The States Times Review has long been a subject of controversy for its political reporting. The passionately worded articles do nothing to hide where they stand on Singaporean politics, and contain numerous spelling, grammatical, and informational inaccuracies.
News outlets should be objective, truthful, and fair in order to serve the public interest.
POFMA forces such independent news outlets to hold their editors and writers to professional standards. It is one thing to be an individual, ranting about politics to his or her 500 followers on social media. It is another to masquerade as a news outlet and pass off opinions or poorly researched facts as news to thousands of people.
The implication of POFMA becomes paramount when taking into consideration the fact that Covid-19 restrictions are still in effect. In the recent Singapore General Elections, the Elections Department (ELD) mandated that no physical rallies should be held by political candidates in its preliminary campaign guidelines, although door-to-door campaigning was still permitted.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube became the online venues to livestream rallies.
With the majority of political campaigning being held online, this somewhat levelled the playing field for smaller parties that might not have had the budget or the logistics to host a physical rally.
However, the instantaneous nature of social media presents a new challenge. What may have been a murmur in the crowd in a physical rally turns into a comment visible to all who are watching in an online rally. With online rallies being livestreamed to tens of thousands of people, a single comment could be easily seen in real time by the audience. Although there have been no reports of hecklers thus far, it is comforting to know that the existence of POFMA as a deterring force has ensured civilised discourse.
POFMA is good news for Singapore. Yes, it affects freedom of speech. However, compare Singapore’s political campaigns with those from other countries with more freedom of speech. In other countries, hundreds of millions are spent on prolonged smear campaigns targeting opposition parties. Falsehoods are often spoken in political rallies. Donald Trump is a good example of everything wrong with freedom of speech. POFMA is – almost – everything right.
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