Singapore Fake News Laws: Guide to POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act)

Last updated on July 12, 2019

phone showing fake news.

Amidst much debate and controversy, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in Parliament on 8 May 2019 with a majority of 72 votes. While POFMA has not come into operation and will commence on a date appointed by the Minister by notification in the Gazette, this article provides an overview of POFMA as well as some of its key provisions.

What is POFMA?

POFMA seeks to prevent the electronic communication of falsehoods (i.e. false statements of fact or misleading information), as well as to safeguard against the use of online platforms for the communication of such falsehoods.

It also puts in place various measures to counteract the effects of such communication and to prevent the misuse of online accounts and bots (i.e. computer programmes that run automated tasks).

Why was POFMA implemented?

Fake news has been an ongoing phenomenon in Singapore. As early as 2007, a picture of “halal pork” allegedly being sold in FairPrice outlets island-wide went viral, forcing the supermarket chain to lodge a police report and assure customers that this was a falsehood.

Then in 2016, a hoax was widely shared about the alleged collapse of a roof at Punggol Waterway Terraces. This false news caused anxiety among residents, and led to the wastage of substantial resources, as grassroots leaders, police and Singapore Civil Defence Force personnel had rushed down to the scene over fears of mass casualties.

The POFMA was therefore implemented to tackle growing concerns over the scourge of fake news and misinformation, communicated particularly through various online and social media platforms.

What does POFMA cover?

POFMA focuses on statements of fact, defined as statements which a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving them would consider as representations of fact.

Under section 3 of the POFMA, statements communicated to one or more end-users in Singapore, through the internet and on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as MMS and SMS, would fall under the POFMA’s purview.

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong clarified in Parliament that POFMA would also cover closed platforms, such as private chat groups and social media groups.

The POFMA is not intended to cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody.

What does POFMA prohibit?

POFMA prohibits the communication of falsehoods in Singapore.

In particular, under section 7 of the POFMA, a person must not commit any acts, whether in or outside of Singapore, to communicate a statement which that person knows or has reason to believe that it is a falsehood, and the communication of that falsehood in Singapore is likely to:

  • Be prejudicial to Singapore’s security;
  • Be prejudicial to public health, public safety, public tranquillity or public finances;
  • Be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries;
  • Influence the outcome of a presidential election, general election, by-election or referendum;
  • Incite feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups of persons; or
  • Diminish public confidence in the government.

Individuals in breach of section 7 will be liable to a fine up to S$50,000 and/or a term of imprisonment up to 5 years. For non-individuals (e.g. online media platforms run by tech companies), a fine of up to $S500,000 will be imposed.

Alternatively, where a fake online account or bot is used to spread such falsehoods, offenders who are individuals will be liable to a fine up to S$100,000 and/or a term of imprisonment up to 10 years. For non-individuals, a fine up to S$1 million will be imposed.

Exemptions to the POFMA

Under section 7(4) of the POFMA, the prohibition against the communication of falsehoods does not apply to any act for the purpose of or that is incidental to the provision of:

  • An internet intermediary service;
  • A telecommunication service;
  • A service of giving public access to the internet; or
  • A computing resource service.

What can Happen If a Falsehood has been Communicated? 

Part 3 Directions

If a falsehood has been communicated, the Minister can issue Directions found in Part 3 of the POFMA (i.e. Part 3 Directions) if it is in the public interest to do so.

Non-compliance with a Part 3 Direction is an offence that individuals can be fined up to S$20,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 12 months for. For non-individuals, they may be liable to a fine up to S$500,000.

In addition, individuals who knowingly communicate falsehoods online, and do so through a fake account or bot, may be subject to aggravated penalties (discussed in further detail below).

The Part 3 Directions are:

Correction Direction

This requires the party who communicated the falsehood to put up a notice stating:

  • That the falsehood communicated previously was false; and/or
  • A correction to the falsehood and/or where such a correction can be found.

The correction notice may also be required to be placed online, or to be published in a Singapore newspaper or other publication.

Stop Communication Direction 

Under a Stop Communication Direction, a person is required to take the necessary steps to ensure that the falsehood communicated is no longer available on, or through, the internet to end-users in Singapore, including – if necessary – the removal of the falsehood from an online location by a specified time. Such steps may include stopping the publication, sharing or posting of the falsehood in Singapore.

The person may also be required to communicate and publish a correction notice in the manner mentioned above. Stop Communication Directions are required to be published in the Government Gazette, although non-publication does not invalidate the Direction.

Part 4 Directions

For internet intermediaries (such as Google, Facebook or Twitter) and providers of mass media services, any Minister may issue the following directions found in Part 4 of the POFMA (i.e. Part 4 Directions) if a falsehood has been communicated and it is in the public interest to issue such directions.

The Part 4 Directions are:

Targeted Correction Direction

Under this direction, an internet intermediary whose service is the means by which a falsehood is communicated in Singapore, will be required to communicate a correction notice to all end-users who accessed such statement via that service.

Disabling Direction

Here, an internet service provider, such as Singtel or StarHub, whose service had been used to communicate the falsehood in Singapore, will be ordered to disable end-user access to that falsehood in Singapore.

General Correction Direction

Here, a Direction is issued to a prescribed:

  • Internet service provider;
  • Newspaper;
  • Broadcaster;
  • Telecommunications service provider;
  • Any other prescribed person,

to communicate a correction notice to its end-users via publication in their newspaper or broadcast, or via transmission by a telecommunications service.

Can I be held liable if I did not know that I was sharing a falsehood?

You will not be criminally liable if you were not aware that you were sharing a falsehood. Criminal sanctions would only apply if a person knowingly publishes or shares a falsehood that harms the public interest.

However, Part 3 Directions may still be issued to any person who communicates a falsehood even if the person had no knowledge or reason to believe that that communication had been a falsehood.

Will I be issued a Direction if I have amended or stopped communicating the falsehood?

A Part 3 or Part 4 Direction may be issued in relation to the falsehood even if it has been amended or has ceased to be communicated in Singapore.

What can Happen to Websites that Repeatedly Spread Misinformation or Falsehoods?

Declaration of an Online Location

Section 32 of the POFMA enables a Minister to declare an online location, or website, as a declared online location. The Declaration may specify the online location by way of its URL, domain name or any other unique identifier. Declarations will also be published in the Government Gazette.

In addition, under section 32(3)(f) of the POFMA, the Declaration may also require the owner or operator of the online location to communicate, and make known, to users who access the online location a notice that the online location is the subject of a Declaration. Users would still, however, be able to access the declared online location.

A failure to comply with the requirements set out in section 32(3)(f) can render the owner or operator of the declared online location, if an individual, liable to a fine up to S$40,000 and/or a term of imprisonment up to 3 years. For non-individuals such as companies, they may be liable to a fine up to S$500,000.

However, it is a defence to this offence if the accused can prove that he or she did not know and had no reason to believe that a declaration was made in relation to the specified online location.

Access Blocking Order

An Access Blocking Order may be issued where:

  • Paid content included on a declared online location is communicated in Singapore, or the owner or operator of a declared online location failed to include a notice that the online location is the subject of a Declaration; and
  • The Minister is satisfied that after the date on which the Declaration of an Online Location came into effect, one or more end-users in Singapore have used, or are using the services of an internet access service provider to access the declared online location.

If an Access Blocking Order is issued, the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) may order an internet service provider to disable access to a declared online location in Singapore where a falsehood is being communicated.

Similarly, internet intermediaries may also be ordered to disable access to a declared online location, where the internet intermediary has control over access by end-users in any place to the declared online location.

Failure to comply with the Access Blocking Order will render the internet service provider (or internet intermediary) liable to a fine of up to S$20,000 for each day that the order is not complied with, up to a total of S$500,000.

How does POFMA Deal with Fake Accounts or Bots that Spread Falsehoods?

Account Restriction Direction

Under Part 6 of the POFMA, any Minister may issue an Account Restriction Direction to order an internet intermediary to shut down any fake accounts and bots on its platforms.

In determining whether an online account is fake or is controlled by a bot, the Minister must have regard to the following factors, as stated under section 40(4) of the POFMA:

  • Whether any information used in creating the online account relates to a country or territory that is different from the country or territory that the account holder claims to be from;
  • Whether there is a pattern of suspicious activity carried out using the online account;
  • The date on which the online account was created; and
  • Any other factor that the Minister considers to be relevant in reaching his or her decision.

Once the Account Restriction Direction has been issued, the internet intermediary will have to prevent the fake accounts from using its services to communicate falsehoods, and/or prevent the accounts’ owners from interacting with the end-users of its service in Singapore.

Account Restriction Directions may run for up to 3 months or for an indefinite period of time. Internet intermediaries can also be required to act outside of Singapore.

A failure to comply with the Account Restriction Direction may render an individual liable to a fine of up to S$20,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of up to 12 months. Non-individuals may be liable to a fine of up to S$1 million.

Aggravated Penalties for Using Fake Accounts or Bots to Communicate Falsehoods

An individual who knowingly communicates a falsehood online, and does so through a fake account or bot, can be fined up to S$100,000 and/or face a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years. Non-individuals can be fined up to $1 million.

Individuals who make or alter a bot for the purposes of communicating a falsehood can face a fine of up to S$30,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of up to 3 years. Non-individuals can face a fine of up to S$500,000.

Can an Appeal be Made Against a Direction or Order?

If an individual or company wants to appeal against a Direction or order issued under the POFMA, they must first apply to the Minister who issued the Direction or order to cancel it.

If the Minister refuses to do so, then an appeal may be made to the High Court to overturn the Direction or order.

For appeals against a Part 3 or Part 4 Direction

The Direction may be set aside on any of the following grounds:

  • The statement or material that is the subject of the Direction was not communicated in Singapore or in the case of a Part 4 Direction, was not communicated in Singapore by any means of any internet intermediary service;
  • The statement is not a statement of fact (e.g. it is an opinion or criticism), or is a true statement of fact;
  • It is not technically possible to comply with the Direction.

For appeals against a Declaration of an Online Location

The High Court may only set aside a Declaration on the ground that, at the time of making the Declaration if the conditions required for the Declaration (as mentioned above) were not satisfied.

For appeals against an Account Restriction Direction

Do note that only the following persons are permitted to appeal to the High Court against an Account Restriction Direction:

  • The prescribed internet intermediary to whom the Direction is issued
  • The holder of the specified online account
  • Any other person with control over that account.

The High Court may only set aside the Direction under the following conditions:

  • The online account had not been used to communicate the falsehood or behaviour;
  • The statement communicated is true;
  • The statement is determined to not be a fact;
  • The account holder is determined to not be working together with other fake accounts or bots to communicate a falsehood;
  • It is technically not possible to comply with the Direction; or
  • The account is found to be authentic.

What Happens If a Falsehood had Originated from Overseas? 

If a falsehood had originated from an overseas source but is being communicated in Singapore, it will still fall under the purview of POFMA which applies to communications of falsehoods in Singapore.

What are the Codes of Practice under the POFMA and How will they be Implemented? 

Under section 48 of the POFMA, codes of practice can be issued to prevent online platforms from being used to spread falsehoods. According to Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, these codes of practice have 3 aims:

  1. To prevent and counter the misuse of online accounts by malicious actors who can hide behind them by remaining anonymous;
  2. To enhance the transparency of political advertising; and
  3. To downplay online falsehoods.

The Codes of Practice complement as well as strengthen the POFMA’s measures, such as corrections and take-down orders, to ensure that online environments are made safer. Such codes may include requiring online platforms – such as social media platforms – to implement reasonable verification measures to prevent the creation of fake accounts or bots that can be used for malicious activities.

Other measures include requiring tech firms to disclose the sources of political advertisements. In Singapore’s context, such advertisements includes election advertising as well as advertisements on issues of public interest or controversy (such as those concerning racial or religious issues), according to Minister Iswaran.

Is there any Recourse for Individuals who have been the Subject of Fake news and Face harassment as a Result?

Amendments have been introduced to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) to enhance protection for victims of harassment as a result of falsehoods. When they come into effect, they will make it easier and more efficient for individuals to seek recourse and the appropriate remedies under POHA.

Applications for interim orders

The courts will be given an expanded scope of orders, where victims of falsehoods (both individuals and companies) will be able to apply for interim orders if they want the falsehood to be taken down urgently.

Applications for interim orders will be heard within 24 hours from when they are filed, although processes may take longer if the other party challenges the victim’s application. If so, a final order is expected to be issued within 1 month from the date of application for the interim order.

General correction orders

The court will be able to issue general correction orders under POHA, which are similar to those under POFMA. Under a general correction order, a third-party – for example, news outlets – are required to publish a correction if serious harm to the victim’s reputation occurred as a result of the publication of a falsehood.

Criminalisation of doxxing

Doxxing – the publication of another individual’s personal information with the intention to harass, threaten or facilitate violence against them – will also be criminalised under POHA.

Individuals found guilty of doxxing with the intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress can be fined up to S$5,000 and/or face a jail term of up to 6 months. The maximum jail term is doubled for individuals found guilty of doxxing with the intent to create fear or provocation.

Refer to our other article for more information on doxxing laws in Singapore.

With the passing of POFMA, the government has undoubtedly adopted a tough stance against online falsehoods and other malicious activities that are carried out through online platforms. POFMA will serve as an important legislative tool to curb the spread of fake news and protect the public against fake news and misinformation that could cause social harm.

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