As fake news continues to proliferate online, a number of countries are beginning to legislate against the spread of disinformation on the internet.
While no one would probably argue against the need to ban fake news, how exactly it should be done in the big question. How can we avoid inflicting “collateral damage” (i.e., undermining the freedom of the press) as we crack down on fake news?
Singapore’s legislature recently passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
Under the new law, the online release of any rhetoric that is deemed biased against the city-state or any fabricated information that can possibly influence election results would constitute a criminal offense that could lead to a fine of S$1 million (US$722,925) and up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
However, the new legislation has raised widespread concerns among human rights groups, journalist organizations and tech companies about the further deterioration of the country’s already fragile freedom of speech.
That’s because the new law has given the authorities extensive powers to forcibly remove any content which they think is fabricated.
No wonder the newly passed Singaporean anti-fake news legislation is mocked by some as being an “Orwellian Law”, a term based on George Orwell’s classic novel “1984”, which depicts life in a world where “Big Brother is watching you”.
That begs the question: how can we strike a reasonable balance between the necessity of banning fake news and the need to protect press freedom? Perhaps the approach adopted by France and Germany can provide us with some useful insights.
Last November, the French National Assembly, after intense debates, passed two bills to crack down on the spread of online disinformation that is intended to manipulate election results.
Under the new laws, a political party or candidate can apply for a court order to ban the dissemination of any suspected fabricated information within three months before election day.
Meanwhile, under the current German law, social media sites must remove obviously illegal contents including hate speech, maliciously defamatory remarks or those inciting violence within 24 hours after they have been reported to the authorities.
Although the laws against fake news in both France and Germany have also raised public doubts about the potential violation of free press, they are fundamentally different from the one passed by Singapore, in that the two European countries have adopted a “bottom-up” approach in legislating against fake news, which makes this “necessary evil”, to some extent, seem less evil.
As a matter of fact, it takes multiple and concerted efforts in society to fight fake news.
For example, news media outlets should provide “fact checks” for readers, while netizens should avoid buying into sensational yet unverified news.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 27
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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