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Singapore passes ‘fake news’ law following researcher outcry

Academics say the regulation could stifle scholarly debate.

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Man text on his cellphone in Tanjong Pagar MRT station, Singapore

A new Singaporean law bans the spreading of false information online.Credit: Neo Chee Wei/Getty

Singapore’s parliament has passed a law that bans the spreading of “a false statement of fact” that harms the public interest. Researchers and human-rights groups opposed the regulation, and warn that it will stifle academic debate.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which passed last week, authorizes Singapore’s ministers to order social media and messaging platforms to remove the material deemed false by authorities, or force them to run corrections. Penalties include up to ten years in jail for individuals and fines on companies or organizations of 1 million Singapore dollars (US$730,000).

A group of academics submitted a letter to the city-state’s education ministry on 11 April raising concerns that scholarly discourse could be stifled. The letter has since garnered 125 signatures, including many scholars based overseas. The letter noted that much of academic work focuses on disputing apparently established ‘facts’, and that even quantitative research deals in probabilities, not absolute certainties.

It added, “Interpretations of even generally agreed upon ‘facts’ may vary greatly, a contention that is the lifeblood of scholarly pursuit, from medicine and mechanical engineering to literary criticism and macroeconomics.”

Singapore’s education minister Ong Ye Kung dismissed the concerns in an 8 May speech to parliament, saying natural sciences research would not be deemed false as long as it was based on real data. Humanities work “in the form of hypotheses, theories, and opinions” would also be exempt, he said.

The writers of the letter had previously said in a 13 April statement that they could not accept such a guarantee until it was reflected in the language of the bill. No such amendment has been made.

Free-speech groups around the globe have condemned the law. Just before the bill’s passage, Amnesty International, which is headquartered in London, said it was part of a long-running campaign by the Singaporean government to clamp down on peaceful government critics.

The government says the law will prevent the spread of falsehoods that could be used to promote hate and “weaken democratic institutions”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01542-7
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