Singapore’s Fake News Law

On May 8, 2019, Parliament passed a bill. Though all Workers’ Party members rallied against it, 72 Members of Parliament ultimately voted in favour of the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” (Tham, 2019). It effectively vests the Singapore government with the power to reach into the digital realm to correct and even remove content regarding public institutions that it deems false, in the interest of Singapore’s safety (Vaswani, 2019).

Academics, writers, editors, even citizens and the media industry have raised their concerns on the legislation and the potentially deleterious effects of the bill on free speech and civic society. However, the People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers stated that the exercising of these powers on online falsehoods is “subject to court appeal and judicial review” (Ng, 2019). Since this law contains the power to affect society, safety and security of Singapore, sociologists can especially apply their theories and concepts to make sense of the reasons for passing the bill and also understand ground sentiments.

Herbert Spencer likens society to an individual with the different organs acting together to keep the whole functioning (Turner, J. H., Beeghley, Leonard, & Powers, C. H., 2002). In this regard, the organs refer to different institutions such as the government, state courts, police force, religion and industries like the media, entertainment and organisations, whether for profit or not.  Spencer notes the inclination in people to gravitate towards self-preservation. Likewise, the different institutions can and do incentivise their behaviour and actions towards the preservation of the whole, so that each part can contribute to the health and safety of the entire unit.

Together, these institutions work to keep modern society stable so that individuals can harmoniously participate in it. Singapore’s societal stability thus depends on the smooth operation and cooperation of these different structures as the very survival of the country-state necessitates such an arrangement. The government is hence incentivised to take fervent interest in all affairs of the country, even if it risks an outpouring of negative comments when passing this law that could be seen to butt against the civil liberties of its people (Vaswani, 2019).

As for Durkeim (2013), he developed the concept of “mechanical” and “organic” solidarity; the latter is observed in modern societies (such as Singapore) since there is great interdependence between individuals and institutions. Durkheim further adds that social solidarity can be further cemented by the legal arm of the government (Johnson, Brookes, Wood, & Brewster, 2017). He saw the law as paramount to comprehending society and its machinations. Durkheim also believed that law is an expression of the evolution in social stability. Hence, the government is committed to maintaining law and order within the region and wields considerable legal power for its size to ensure peace and stability for its inhabitants. Likewise, the government recognises the detrimental effects of falsehoods from malicious actors that can spread like wildfire through the digital arena if left unchecked (Benner, 2019). 

From a sociological standpoint, and for those reasons above, the fake news law is a vehicle and extension of the legal power that the Singapore government, as an institution, expresses and exerts on any material or persons, for the primary objective of quashing the slightest hint of falsehoods that could potentially pose a threat to the social fabric of Singapore. This law then, does not only protect the government’s interests, but also that of the public and ultimately, the individual.

However, more can be gained from understanding the fake news law from a much broader perspective. Charles Wright Mills (2000) coined the “Sociological Imagination” as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society” and it provides just the right tool for the job. On the surface, it might seem that the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” could potentially be a “political tool for the ruling party to wield power” (Tham, 2019). However, minister Shanmugam asserted that the law is solely to mould Singapore society, arguably for the better.

In this context, applying the sociological imagination allows individuals to understand that online falsehoods and fake news do not just affect one person. Fake and malicious content holds the power to distort the truth and ultimately affect entire societies (Goh, 2017). Singapore has also had to contend with local platforms spreading deliberate falsehoods with pernicious outcomes for the earnest citizen even as it combats falsities from external actors. By recognising how the institution of government uses its legal arm to curb specific speech and content in order to safeguard Singapore’s interest, one is now better equipped with a clearer sense of the “why” by applying the sociological imagination. With that, deciphering the actions of governments everywhere becomes a much easier task, especially when governmental action can have drastic effects on everyday life.

Understanding Ground Sentiment

Surveys will be the primary mode of gathering data. Researchers will also use sentiment analysis techniques on the captured data (Gupta, 2018). The team will work with educational institutes in Singapore such as the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and local universities to catch the predominantly under-25 crowd.

Researchers will enter classes and flash a QR code on screen, leading students to a dynamic microsite. Programatically, the QR code points surveyees to a URL that then forwards students, in an even distribution, to one of three website versions. The first lists articles generally in favour of the law with the second showing all articles reporting on the law while the third lists articles with negative sentiments on the bill.

A brightly coloured button with the words: “Take the survey”, will always remain visible at the top of the page. The survey asks: “Are you in favour of passing the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’?” with two possible answers, “Yes” and “No”. The second question asks: “Please share your thoughts regardless of your answer to question one”.

The surveys will also capture the gender, course of study, date of birth, race, religion and the last four digits of their IC numbers. These data points aim to provide support to draw correlations. The QR code and digital survey approach attempt to distance the researcher from the surveyees while also minimizing researcher influence and “observer effect” (Wickstrom & Bendix, 2000). Sentiment analysis techniques will further dissect the data gathered from the second question.

References

Durkheim, E. (2013). The Division of Labor in Society. eBook ISBN-13: 978-1-4209-4857-8

Goh, Z. S. (2017). Fake news tells more than just lies. TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/fake-news-tells-more-just-lies

Gupta, S. (2018, Jan 8). Sentiment Analysis: Concept, Analysis and Applications. Medium. Retrieved from https://towardsdatascience.com/sentiment-analysis-concept-analysis-and-applications-6c94d6f58c17

Johnson, P., Brookes, M., Wood, G., & Brewster, C. (2017). Legal Origin and Social Solidarity: The Continued Relevance of Durkheim to Comparative Institutional Analysis. Sociology, 51(3), 646-665

Mills, C. W. (2000). The Sociogical Imagination. ISBN-13 978 0-19-513373-8

Ng, H. (2019, Apr 1). Parliament: 7 things to know about Singapore’s proposed law to combat online fake new. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/7-things-to-know-about-singapores-proposed-law-to-combat-online-fake-news

Tham, Y. (2019, May 9). Parliament: Fake news law passed after 2 days of debate. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-fake-news-law-passed-after-2-days-of-debate

Turner, J. H., Beeghley, Leonard, & Powers, C. H. (2002). The emergence of sociological theory (5th ed.). Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 5-89. Retrieved from  https://www.uzh.ch/cmsssl/suz/dam/jcr:00000000-36d7-41d4-ffff-ffff9b49d30e/Turner.pdf

Vaswani, K. (2019, April 4). Concern over Singapore’s anti-fake news law. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47782470Wickstrom G, Bendix T. (2000). The “Hawthorne effect” – what did the original Hawthorne studies actually show? Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 26(4), 363-367.