May 08, 2019
Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Second Reading of the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Bill
Mr Speaker Sir
1. The ambit of this law has little to do with my Ministry. But since I received a letter from concerned academics, I thought I should speak at this debate. As of 6 May afternoon, the letter was signed by 124 academics. To the best of MOE’s knowledge, 71 are foreign academics based in foreign universities, and 52 are Singaporean – 25 based in foreign universities, and 27 based in local universities. There is one signatory who is a foreign academic based in a local university.
2. My colleagues from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) have offered to meet with the academics who signed the letter. The offer has not been formally taken up yet, but I understand many academics have attended the dialogue sessions which Minister Shanmugam, SMS Edwin Tong, as well as SMS Janil Puthucheary have conducted at our universities. I hope that our three POHs have largely assuaged their concerns.
3. Today, I will explain how hard, or rather how impossible it is, for academic research to run afoul of POFMA. Second, I will comment on what I think the academics, or at least some of them, are really worried about. I will end my speech with a summary in Mandarin.
4. I have been sitting here today, listening to the debate and I think we have started to obfuscate what the core matter is about. We have started to come up with scenarios where we think the truths or falsehoods are somewhat fuzzy. We talked about the balance between the executive and the judiciary. We talked about fast versus slow processes, but what is this issue really about? The issue is that we have a serious threat from online falsehoods. SM Teo was earlier sharing with me one of his memories when he was young. It was during the time of the racial riots – The Straits Times had a big headline saying ‘Stop rumour mongering’ because that was fuelling the riots. Just imagine – today, with the tools in the hands of people with malicious intent, it is 1,000 times easier to come up with falsehoods. It will spread thousands of times faster and further, with significantly greater impact. This is what we are really dealing with.
POFMA Has Nothing to Do with Research
5. First, let me reiterate the two gates through which any falsehood must pass before it can be corrected or removed by this Bill. One, what is put up online must be a statement of fact that is false. Two, it must cause public harm. When these two gates are crossed, then the falsehood may be corrected or removed by a Direction.
6. Directions are not criminal punishments. It is just a correction. So let us put things in perspective here. We have debated about various issues including the powers of ministers, but it is actually about the power to initiate a correction of an online falsehood that has gone viral and has caused public harm. For there to be criminal liability, a third gate has to be crossed, which is that the propagator of the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful. So there is malicious intent. And that is for the ministers and ministries to justify, prosecutors to initiate, and the courts to decide on the verdict.
7. What kind of online activities would pass the two gates? We have heard many examples today, but let me revisit some of those and give you a few more.
8. Two years ago in Germany, there was a report that a mob of 50 “Arab-looking”1 men assaulted women on New Year’s Eve in downtown Frankfurt. The story went viral. But when the German police investigated, they found no evidence of this mysterious assault. The newspaper eventually conceded that the attacks described in the article did not take place, apologised, and took down the article from all its platforms.2 But more people had read and remembered the falsehood in the original article than the clarification. The damage was done; public sentiments shifted, society became more tense, and political discourse was altered.
9. We are familiar with Brexit. During the campaign on the referendum, a falsehood was going around that Turkey was going to join the European Union (EU) and Britain would be flooded with immigrants from Turkey. The falsehood might have well affected the outcome of the referendum and the fate of the United Kingdom.
10. It will get worse as technology continues to advance. You can now use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make fake videos of a real person – or ‘deep fakes’. Just google ‘Obama deepfake’, and you will find a video of the former US President delivering a speech with swear words and all, which he, of course, did not. You can also find a deep fake video of President Donald Trump telling an audience in Belgium that they should withdraw from the Paris climate agreement; a speech he did not make.
11. But you do not even need to deploy sophisticated technology to spread false information. In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published a controversial study that linked the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, to autism. It circulated widely. Although the study has been totally debunked, it helped fuel a dangerous movement of vaccine scepticism and refusal around the world. It was later discovered that Wakefield had falsified the data, and had been paid by lawyers involved in an MMR lawsuit. The paper was retracted only in 2010, more than 10 years after its publication. This paper remains severely harmful, as children who are unvaccinated could lose their lives.
12. Deliberate lies, connivance, impersonations, incitement of unrest and societal anger and turmoil. This is what we are dealing with. This is the world of online falsehoods and manipulations that this Bill is targeting.
13. In contrast, what is research? It is about experiments, gathering data, testing hypotheses, publishing findings and discovering how the world works, having work reviewed by peers, and following a strict discipline and process.
14. We should distinguish between two kinds of research. The first kind is an empirical-based approach to understanding how nature works. This is what researchers are doing in A*STAR, and faculties such as engineering and medicine at our universities. They are figuring out how the human genome works, finding new cures for diseases, ways to cut down carbon emission, developing new materials for buildings and bridges, and inventing new models with new AI technology and algorithms to have sharper predictive powers.
15. In all these fields, scientists are questioning truths all the time. It is an endless quest for knowledge, where our understanding of nature and life are constantly proven and then unproven. So Newton’s laws of motion, which used to be widely accepted, are proven now to be only partially true. Scientists have also proven that time, which we used to believe is constant, can be bent, stretched and compressed.
16. One branch of empirically-based research is data science. I recently came across a book called Kiasunomics written by three NUS researchers. It is a popular version of a series of academic papers they have published. They gathered vast amount of data - including those from Government departments and agencies - and tested many hypotheses. They found that after the removal of the KTM Railway, the prices of nearby HDB flats went up significantly; yellow taxis encountered fewer accidents than blue ones; households use more water when there was haze, etc. They went on to explain why. It is very possible that one day, someone may gather more data and refute their findings.
17. Does that mean POFMA will “criminalise” those whose discoveries and theories were proven wrong or only partially true? So will Newton be caught by POFMA because his laws were only partially true? Or will the three authors of Kiasunomics be persecuted if one day, blue taxis have more accidents than yellow taxis? Or will POFMA “criminalise” research that is trying to disprove a theory or a body of knowledge that is already well established?
18. The answer is no; that is simply not the business of POFMA. Any attempt to apply POFMA on empirically-based, natural sciences research will fail at the first gate – which is, is there falsehood? No, because researchers use real data and observations to draw their conclusions. Even if the data may not be accurate because the experiment was not well conducted, or the data collected is not reproducible or incomplete, there is no falsehood as defined by POFMA. Second gate, is there public harm? I don’t believe good, honest research can cause public harm.
19. One honourable member mentioned that about 15 years ago, two labour economists got into trouble because they used partial data and concluded that 9 out of 10 jobs in Singapore went to foreigners. So now, let us apply POFMA’s two gates to this case. First gate – was there a falsehood? There was not. They used real data; it was not a falsehood. They used real data but it was incomplete. Still, they did not fabricate the data. Second – was there public harm? I do not think there were any riots or heightened tensions because of this. So, it will fail at both gates. After I heard about this, I did a check on the two academics. Both of them are still teaching at the LKY School of Public Policy. I understand that both are now Singaporeans; they applied for citizenship after the incident.
20. The second type of research is a strand of humanities research based on opinion, philosophy, interpretation of history, cultural bias, geographical context, etc. Instead of empirical data, they use methods that are primarily critical and interpretive, to substantiate their hypotheses and arguments.
21. I enjoy reading the books of Yuval Noah Harari. He is a historian and a tenured professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In his two best-selling books Sapiens and Homo Deus, he cites some empirical findings, but mostly describes his deduction, thoughts, and opinions. He gave his take on the origins and purpose of religion in holding complex societies together. He postulated that humans will achieve near immortality and God-like powers, not too far off into the future.
22. Some of the works of humanities scholars, like Yuval Noah Harari, can be controversial, highly debatable, even offensive to some. But they cannot be subject to POFMA. In fact, they won’t even reach the two gates of POFMA. Their conclusions are in the form of hypotheses, theories, and opinions that are not covered by the Bill. And Minister Shanmugam, I am sure, will explain why and how. This Bill is about the truthfulness of “facts” – did the men really assault the women, did the President really give that speech, was Turkey really joining the EU? Those were the statements of fact that concern POFMA.
23. Let me wrap up this section of my speech and I have to talk about Galileo; quite a few members have already spoken about him. Actually, it is an excellent case study of how research upset conventional wisdom. I want to talk about how he was treated then and how he would be treated today under POFMA. Of course, today we know that the earth goes around the sun. However, at that time, the belief was that the sun went around the earth, and it was an important concept central to the power of the Church and the Roman authorities.
24. Galileo wanted to prove the reverse of the belief of that time. So he built his own telescope, and spent many lonely days and nights staring into the sky, collected data and proved that the earth revolved around the sun.
25. Despite his empirical methods, his challenge was not taken kindly by the Roman authorities. Other astronomers came up with other observations and data to prove that the sun indeed revolved around the earth. He was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment, and kept under house arrest until his death.
26. What if something like this were to happen today, involving a question to which we have no answers, or we thought we had an answer, and a researcher comes up with something that challenges deeply held views or shared reality, as Associate Professor Theseira mentioned?
27. In our context, I can assure the House, that if it is empirical research, we will stay true to science and empirical evidence. We have always been, sometimes to a fault. And if it is an opinion-based research, we will have a vigorous public debate. Under both scenarios, POFMA does not apply in such a discourse.
28. The only way POFMA comes in is if the research uses false observations and data to start with, which prevents public discourse from taking place properly. In which case, I do not think such work can pass the academic and professional standards of any decent university or research institute.
29. Mr Speaker Sir, research that challenges conventional wisdom and shared belief is happening as we speak in ways that I think are more significant than when Galileo was working on the sun and the earth model. Quantum scientists have discovered that a very small particle can appear at two or more places at the same time until you look at it. So imagine that you are not really there until I look at you. The score is not 4-0, until I look at it. So it did not really happen. That’s too simplistic a way to put it, but they are questioning reality as we know it.
30. In economics, the post Global Financial Crisis debate continues, on the efficacy of fiscal policies, monetary policies and quantitative easing. Researchers are also questioning the causal relationship between unemployment and skills gap, and if a nation’s success should also include measures beyond GDP, to include ecological sustainability and social equity. So big questions are undergoing research now.
31. These works challenge existing beliefs in far more profound ways than any meme, blog post, video or opinion piece in the newspapers shared online, which is the practical focus of POFMA. These pieces of research are on-going, welcomed and embraced. If any of our researchers make such a breakthrough in our understanding of the world, rather than being persecuted, as Mr Cedric Foo said, they are more likely to be celebrated and may even be accorded a National Day award! This Government will always honour empirical and evidence-based research.
Their Real Concern is Political Discourse
32. Let me try to address what I think some of the academics are really concerned about. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it is about research. I think they are worried that POFMA will be abused and used to stifle political discourse in Singapore. Because not all researchers are just researchers; they may also be activists. There is nothing wrong with that. It is in their activist role that some of these academics are voicing their concerns about POFMA.
33. So there is a request for an explicit carve-out for opinions, criticisms, satires, etc in the Bill. I want to point out that we cannot conflate research with activism. I read a FB post3 by Dr Derek da Cunha and I thought he put it across very well. He observed that some academics, I quote, “spend every other week banging away on the subject online and offline because his or her motivation is to effect change. This isn’t even a case of any contentiousness over what is, or is not, the “truth”.
34. He added, and I quote: “Instead, it brings up the question: what is the appropriate role of an academic? Any contention that academics should not adhere to boundaries or parameters, but such boundaries or parameters should exist for everyone else, might be an unreasonable proposition.”
35. The same point was made by a Straits Times Forum letter writer who asked - “Where is the line between exercising academic freedom to pursue truth and wisdom, and hiding behind academic freedom to fulfil partisan political and socio-economic agendas? Does having academic freedom mean one has carte blanche to communicate irresponsibly and without credible evidence?”4
36. Let me put it quite plainly. Any activist will not be caught by POFMA if you express an opinion or even hurl criticisms at the Government. The law treats all activists equally - whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street. It does not target academics. You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs or critique the Government.
37. Conversely, any activist – whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street – who uses the online medium to spread falsehoods that harm society, will come under POFMA. POFMA offers no special shield to academics either.
38. But the law aside, in this era of free-for-all communications and interactions, public discourse is becoming more rigorous. And here is where things may get a little bit different for academics.
39. Academics are well-respected members of society. We hold academics to “conduct professorial” – high standards of integrity, in their teaching, their research, and the validity of their views put forward in public. This is especially so when they speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly-funded local university.
40. So you can put out an opinion that Singapore’s growth model has failed, meritocracy has failed, that the education system is elitist, our social welfare does not work and it does more harm than good. POFMA will not apply to you because that is your opinion. But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect Government agencies, if we do not agree with you, to put out the data, put out our arguments, and to convince the public otherwise. If that has a chilling effect, please chill.
41. The same and perhaps, even higher expectations apply to my Cabinet colleagues and I. Whatever we say needs to be well thought out, set the tone for society, and be in the best interest of our people. Today, if anyone of us puts forward a view in a speech, during a dialogue or in an Instagram or Facebook post and if the public does not agree with us, they will speak up and give us a piece of their mind. And we have to consider those views and re-evaluate our position. The interaction will get more active and rigorous. It is part and parcel of modern governance. And when it comes to our decisions and actions, the scrutiny will be even more intense.
42. We want this interaction and exchange of ideas and opinions to be free of malicious falsehoods which poison the atmosphere and mislead the discourse. POFMA enhances, and not diminishes, democratic public discourse.
Speaker Sir, I shall continue my speech in Mandarin.
Fake news has been in existence since the ancient times. For example, during the Wei Jin Dynasty in China, the Qin army from the north sent their troops south to attack Eastern Jin. As the two troops battled at the Fei river, Eastern Jin’s troops suggested for the Qin troops to move back, to allow the Jin troops to cross the river, so that the two troops can battle to the death. As the vanguards of the Qin army moved back, Jin soldiers who have infiltrated this group started shouting: “The Qin Army have lost! The Qin Army have lost!” Amazingly, the Qin troops believed these words, and thought that the command to move backwards is a sign of defeat. This led to a sharp drop in the troops’ morale, and they were heavily hammered and forced to retreat.
The Qin army were then filled with anxiety and panic, every movement in the surrounding plants made them suspect that it was the Jin army lying in ambush. That is how the Chinese Idiom “Cao Mu Jie Bing” (every plant is an enemy soldier) came about. There can never be too much deceit in times of war – this has been so since the ancient times; falsehoods have been used to affect the morale of societies and people. Singapore is not immune to this either.
However, the falsehoods of today are different from the past.
- channels of falsehoods have increased: through the Internet, and the widespread usage of mobile devices.
- the speed of spreading falsehoods has increased: a survey on social media conducted by MIT found that falsehoods can reach 20,000 individuals in a day, but facts and truth can only reach 10,000 in three days. Falsehoods can spread six times faster than the truth.
- falsehoods have also become more destructive.
Three years ago, during the voting of Brexit, the Internet was flooded with falsehoods, such as Turkey becoming part of EU, which would cause large numbers of immigrants to enter the UK. Such intentional spread of falsehoods is to mislead the voters, which affected the voting results.
Apart from politics, falsehoods disrupt the everyday lives of people. Eight years ago, the North Eastern part of Japan was hit by an earthquake, damaging their nuclear plant, and there was a rumour online suggesting that salt could fend off radiation, which caused the people to rush to the supermarkets and buy all the salt supplies available.
Nearer to home, in 2017, there was a rumour that a hawker in Geylang was selling satay made of dog and cat meat. In the same year, there were also accusations of local supermarkets selling rice made of plastic. Fortunately, there were timely clarifications for these two incidents, and it did not lead to more panic and hysteria.
As technology advances, this problem will worsen. In recent years, artificial intelligence has developed the “Deepfake” function. Computers can use stored visuals and falsify video content, mimicking a person’s actions and speech. Such a technique of fabrication has frightening risks and implications. China has decided to ban the use of “Deepfake” technology.
We cannot stop the advancement of technology, and we cannot evade the problems that comes along with it. We have the responsibility to find solutions to rectify these problems. The Bill tabled this time has clear goals and defined boundaries. Like I mentioned in my examples, the Bill can be used to request online platforms or media companies to issue corrections. Spreading of falsehoods with ill intent can also be kept under control.
There are academics who worry that this Bill will restrict freedom of speech, or impact academic research – that is definitely overthinking the issue. This Bill is only applicable to the examples I mentioned; facts are different from opinions and criticisms. Unless the research paper made use of falsified data or falsehoods, there is no need to worry.
The Bill is targeting the writers of fake news, and not the people who spread it. So, there is no need to worry. However, I hope that everyone can be vigilant at all times, and verify the information they receive before sharing them with family and friends.
There is actually nothing new under the sun, but in this Internet era, strange things seem to be surfacing all the time. The Bill may only have an effect on a small amount of falsehoods out there, but I believe that the falsehoods that it hits are those that have the greatest danger and negative impact.
Globally, falsehoods have already affected democracy and the lives of people. The deeper reason for tabling this Bill is to safeguard the lives of our people.
Conclusion – POFMA will Protect Public Discourse and Democracy
56. Mr Speaker Sir, let me conclude. We know that online falsehoods have affected election and referendum results, twisted public sentiments, heightened public and societal tensions, and altered political discourse. A big worry of the modern world, is whether democracy can withstand this onslaught. And indeed, this is a major challenge of our times.
57. Today, the odds are stacked against those of us who are trying to uphold institutions, all of us in this House. The balance of power is asymmetrical, heavily weighted in favour of those with malicious intentions. It is far easier to make a sensational falsehood viral, than a technical correction. It is far easier to use bots to spread falsehoods, than to use a speech and use traditional media coverage.
58. I give you an example. In the recent shooting in New Zealand, the shooter had a live Facebook feed of 17 minutes. Let’s juxtapose that video against the standards under POFMA. Is there public harm? That’s the second gate. Definitely. Did the perpetrator possess knowledge of the harm? That’s the third gate. Certainly. Is there falsehood? There isn’t. Because what went live was what took place. So, POFMA cannot force a takedown of this feed. In the end, it was taken down, not by the force of law, but by Facebook itself, under a lot of pressure.
59. Relative to the explosion of online capabilities that is now presented to those with malicious intents, the ambit of this law is not large. When online falsehoods are perpetrated, it only gives the Government legislative powers for a surgical and judicious insertion of additional facts, through a correction order. And that is as far as the executive powers of Ministers go. It is not the omnipresent, draconian, nuclear weapon or Infinity Gauntlet that some people make it out to be.
60. While small, POFMA is a necessary response to this tectonic technological change, to protect democratic public discourse which we cherish. Let me raise one last point. Associate Professor Walter Theseira spoke on the need for a shared reality for any society. For democracy and constructive discourse to work, there must be a common understanding of the underlying facts of the country – what happened and what did not. And I am glad you acknowledged that.
61. Some of these facts shaped the character and common ethos of a nation. Today’s understanding of shared reality, with science and history, is no longer like the 17th century. I think we have proper science, and we have a well-recorded history. It is no longer like in Galileo’s time. So in Germany, the Holocaust happened. The Germans had lived under a dark period of Nazism, and that is an undeniable fact. In China, the May Fourth Movement happened a hundred years ago, the revolutions of 1949 happened and those events shaped modern China. The US liberated the slaves and went through a devastating civil war. That happened. In Singapore, we are a small, multi-cultural island state, faced Communist threats, and thrusted into independence in 1965. Those happened.
62. Today, researchers continue to study and interpret those events: what caused them, what they represented, what their impact is today. But they cannot deny that they happened, and continue to shape the character and psyche of societies today.
63. A society that holds onto certain truths is a social necessity, a binding force in politics, and a pre-requisite for civil discussions. Lose these, and the country loses part of its soul. Otherwise, democracy becomes a marketplace of merchants peddling forgeries. Only by holding onto certain truths, are we able to continue to collectively identify the issues that are important to us, the options and paths we can take, and decide the way forward, without the lies and without the manipulations.
64. Associate Professor Walter Theseira said that this is a vote of conscience. It is indeed a vote of conscience. Look at the tectonic shifts that we are facing – technology has fundamentally changed society, and changed the political discourse. It is changing politics and modern society as we know it. All governments around the world will need new rules, new laws and new mechanisms to deal with this tectonic change. It is a vote of conscience.
65. Mr Speaker, Sir, thank you.