Pofma — but not for WhatsApp so far
Updated: May 21
By Daryl Choo and Alvina Koh
ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE
Fake news spreading on text messaging platforms like WhatsApp seem to have escaped the Pofma dragnet. While the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) has been liberally imposed on online sites and Facebook posts, it hasn’t been applied to the myriad of bogus text messages over the Covid-19 virus outbreak.
Pofma was invoked 27 times on matters to do with the virus outbreak, with more than half in response to claims on Facebook by Mr Alex Tan and the Facebook pages of his now blocked States Times Review websites. But for text messages, the Government seems to prefer getting its agencies to front clarifications and falsehoods.
The authorities have listed at least 18 such notices debunking bogus text messages on Factually — the Government’s fact-checking website — rather than issuing correction directions or take down orders. These clarifications were for rumours spreading mostly through text messaging services like WhatsApp.
Some fake messages do not make it into the website but are issued by the authorities directly, such as when police took to Facebook on Sunday (May 10) to dismiss rumours circulating on WhatsApp that their officers were checking homes to nab people who flout circuit breaker measures during the Hari Raya period.
And when rumours started circulating that Singapore would be going into a lockdown or that the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level would be raised to red, they were dismissed by government ministers through the media and the Gov.sg WhatsApp group.
In other words, the tally on fake messages that had to be debunked is actually much higher than what has been listed on Factually.
Here are the 27 uses of Pofma on Covid-19 related falsehoods. They include 15 against Mr Alex Tan and the various Facebook pages for his States Times Review (STR) website under different names.
STR had previously been blocked by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) under the Broadcasting Act in November 2018, for refusing to take down an article claiming Singapore’s involvement in laundering the funds of Malaysian state fund 1MDB. He then started a new website called Singapore Herald, which was similarly blocked by IMDA a month later for another article he declined to take down.
But Mr Tan, based in Australia, has since continued posting about Singapore through Facebook under different page names such as States Times Review, Singapore States Times, and since last Thursday, National Times Singapore. These Facebook pages are all linked to the STR website and carry instructions on how users in Singapore can bypass IMDA’s censorship to view his site.
Of the 27 uses of Pofma, 22 involved issuing directions to individuals or Internet intermediaries that run online platforms like Facebook or forums to correct what the Government deems to be false statements.
The remaining five uses were to designate Facebook pages run by Mr Alex Tan as Declared Online Locations to cut off its ability to profit and to send orders to disable these pages.
Out of the 22 directions issued for coronavirus related falsehoods, 20 were sent to Facebook and individuals who had posted the falsehoods on the social media platform. One direction was issued to SPH Magazine’s HardwareZone forum and another to the now-defunct City News website.
These falsehoods mainly concerned fake updates about the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore at that point of time. A post on HardwareZone in January claimed there had been a death from the virus, City News claimed in an article there was local transmission of the virus before the first such case was reported and a post by Mr Tan provided wrong daily infection numbers.
Among the ministries, the Health Minister was the most active, with eight Pofma directions, half of which were against Mr Tan’s posts.
The bulk of the corrections issued were aimed at individuals, receiving 15 correction directions in total. Although individuals who receive correction directions do not have to take down their posts, almost everyone chose to remove them entirely.
The only exceptions were Mr Lim Tean and Mr Tan. Mr Lim had falsely claimed that a dinner held at Safra Jurong in February, which resulted in a cluster of 47 coronavirus patients, was organised by the People’s Association.
He was made to include a notice at the top of his original post informing readers his post contains falsehoods and a link to the Government’s Factually website which carries the clarifications.
There was just one use of a general correction direction, issued against a post on the HardwareZone forum claiming a man had died from the virus. The forum post was removed before the Pofma order was issued and a forum administrator carried the correction notice as a general announcement on the forum pages.
Six targeted correction directions were issued to Facebook to attach correction notices to the posts. Users in Singapore who encountered these posts would see this notice attached to it, which also included a link to Factually: “Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information.”
None of the posts issued targeted correction directions are currently available online.
One targeted correction direction issued to Facebook was for posts made by two people who falsely claimed Woodlands MRT was closed for disinfection due to a suspected case of Covid-19. It is unclear if Facebook had attached the notices to the posts, as they have since been taken down by the individuals.
These targeted correction directions were mostly used against posts from Mr Alex Tan, perhaps because he had not complied with any correction directions in the past.
Since Pofma’s introduction, the authorities have issued eight correction directions to Mr Tan’s Facebook page as well as two Facebook pages — States Times Review and Singapore States Times — which are associated with him.
Seven of these directions were against posts related to Covid-19 and one against a post he had made claiming the authorities had arrested the administrator of the NUSSU - NUS Students United Facebook page that had called out the “religious leanings” of a potential PAP candidate.
Mr Tan complied with none of the orders.
The Government went further, designating the three Facebook pages owned by Mr Alex Tan as Declared Online Locations (DOL), which means they will not be allowed to profit from postings made on the pages from users in Singapore. These DOLs must also put up a notice to inform users that the page has a history of spreading repeated falsehoods.
Mr Tan, again, did not comply with this order for all of his pages. Clearly, the declarations have not been effective in reining in Mr Tan, who claims that laws from “foreign governments like North Korea or Singapore” have no jurisdiction over him.
Because he did not comply with the DOL order, the Government invoked Pofma twice to send disabling orders to Facebook to block Singapore users from accessing the States Times Review Facebook page on Feb 17, as well as to both the Singapore States Times and Mr Alex Tan’s own Facebook page on May 8.
This “disabling order” is separate from a “disabling direction” under the law, and also carries lower penalties for not complying.
A disabling order is sent to Internet intermediaries like Facebook to block access to a page that has been designated a DOL but does not comply with the DOL order. Intermediaries that do not comply with the disabling order can be fined a maximum of $500,000.
A disabling direction is also sent to Internet intermediaries to block access to a page. The difference is that this direction can be sent to a page that has not received any previous directions or orders under Pofma. Intermediaries that do not comply with the disabling direction can be fined a maximum of $1 million.
The three pages designated as DOLs are no longer accessible to users in Singapore but are reportedly visible to users outside the country.
Mr Tan also created a new Facebook page National Times Singapore, a day after the Singapore States Times and Mr Alex Tan’s Facebook pages were designated as DOLs. He continues to post content from his States Times Review website on this Facebook page.
Lawyers have said while Pofma applies to all online content visible to users in Singapore, Mr Tan would be able to escape prosecution for not complying with the directions as long as he remains abroad, as Singapore is generally not able to enforce its criminal law overseas.
Mr Lim Tean, who has received four correction directions from the Pofma office, has also met the requirement for his page to be designated a DOL under the law even though he has either complied with those directions or removed the offending posts. That decision, however, rests on the Government’s discretion.
During the Committee of Supply debate in March, Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran used the Covid-19 outbreak to justify the Pofma legislation.
“Our Covid-19 experience has reinforced, if anything, that conviction, and certainly we have no reason to question the reason for doing so," he told the House.
"In a situation like an epidemic, it is essential that our population stays calm, gets advice and information from reliable sources, and is able to then take appropriate measures,” he added. “In that context, we have found Pofma, the tools and also the... authority that is vested in the executive to exercise those tools to have been very effective.”
It appears, however, that it would be hard to tamp down a person determined to play punk with the law like Mr Tan. What’s more interesting is how the Government has made no effort to use Pofma on text messaging which is the communication platform of choice among older people who would be more susceptible to believing falsehoods.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said during the debate on the Pofma legislation in Parliament last year that for these text messaging platforms, general correction directions may be issued instead.
Calling chat groups “ideal platforms” for fake news, he said researchers believe people are more susceptible to emotive falsehoods because these are familiar and trusted spaces.
"The Bill therefore recognises that platforms that are closed are not necessarily private,” Mr Tong added.
Nevertheless, the authorities have so far let such perpetrators of falsehoods off the hook.
Class Notes’ checks turned up the following falsehoods that the authorities clarified on Factually without invoking Pofma:
Amid the spread of fake news concerning the evolving coronavirus situation, authorities on Jan 31 lifted the temporary exemptions of some search engines and social media platforms, including Google, Baidu, Facebook and Twitter, from general correction directions under Pofma. They have not invoked that power on these platforms so far.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has also tightened limits on the number of times users can forward a message. Users will only be able to forward “highly forwarded” messages to one chat at a time. These messages, which have been forwarded more than five times, are labelled with double arrows.
The restrictions were applied to users worldwide after the messaging service saw a “significant increase” in forwarding on WhatsApp since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
It is this ability to easily forward messages without context of the original source to multiple people and groups that make messaging platforms like WhatsApp so prone to the spreading of misinformation, said Dr Natalie Pang, principal investigator at the National University of Singapore Centre for Trusted Internet and Community.
While it is technically possible to issue correction notices, Pofma’s effectiveness is “limited” on these messaging platforms, especially compared to sites like Facebook and online articles, she added.
“On WhatsApp, we can only count on individuals to verify the falsehoods they receive and do the necessary in forwarding and notifying authorities about it,” she told Class Notes.
“Because it is so hard to trace how each falsehood began on WhatsApp, it will be quite challenging for POFMA to extend its reach to falsehoods circulating on WhatsApp - where they are in fact, the most effective,” she said.
More significantly, in one instance, the Government decided to forgo Pofma altogether and levelled the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act on a man who posted on a Facebook group for taxi drivers.
Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, is expected to plead guilty for posting statements between April 15 and 16 declaring he had “intel” that the Government would be announcing the closure of food courts and coffee shops the next day, advising people to “stock up your stuff for the next month or so’’.
The section of the law he was charged under states: “Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.”
A similar offence, under Section 7 of Pofma on “communication of false statements of fact in Singapore” carries a fine of up to $50,000 and a maximum jail term of 5 years. The provisions under this section does not require any prior directions or orders to be sent to the offender.
The authorities, however, have not charged anyone in court under Pofma. They have also not made clear what the line is between being served a correction direction or charged under Pofma, and being charged with an offense under other laws.
When Mr K Shanmugam, the Law and Home Affairs Minister, was asked why Lai was not served with a correction direction under Pofma, he said the facts of the case fit with the charge, which was brought on the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
"You look at the previous cases where Pofma was used... in the vast majority, probably, there was no other criminal offence," he added. "When it's a criminal offence, we will take action along those lines... but if it crosses the threshold for Pofma, we will use Pofma."
Mr Yeoh Lian Chuan, managing director for Sabara Law LLC, thinks Mr Shanmugam had “smartly deflected the question” in his response.
In his view, Mr Yeoh said, being charged under Section 7 of Pofma represents a “more serious offence” than something under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, firstly because the penalties are higher.
“Another way of putting it is also that Pofma has a ‘high signature’,” he said, referring to how Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, then Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, had labelled the Sedition Act as a “high signature act” in Parliament in 2007.
A key difference between the two laws is that under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, the prosecution would have to prove that the defendant had posted the false message knowingly.
Under Section 7 of Pofma, the prosecution would only need to provide evidence that the defendant had “reason to believe” the message was false, and prove that the statement would have a harmful effect on, for example, public health and safety or “diminish public confidence” in the Government or its agencies.
The case will be heard on May 27. Hopefully, more light will be shed on the Government’s thinking behind the use of the law.
The writers acknowledge the assistance of Mr Teo Kai Xiang, who runs the website POFMA'ed that tracks the use of the fake news legislation.