“Fake news” is a term to describe “news stories” that appear to contain factual information, but are actually completely false. Some examples of fake news that have been spread around Singapore include:
- The National Environment Agency will issue a fine for leaving used tissues in bowls, plates, or cups at coffee shops or hawker centres;
- The Ministry of Manpower encouraged employers to give staff a paid day off on 25 September 2015 in light of the worsening air quality then;
- Singaporean singer Stephanie Sun was killed during a concert in New York in October 2017; and
- Thaipusam musicians being ordered to stop playing their instruments in April 2015 after a Filipino family complained about the noise.
Fake news can spread very rapidly over the Internet, especially if spread by websites with high traffic. For example, the now-defunct website The Real Singapore, which published the false Thaipusam article mentioned above, received more than 2 million unique visitors every month.
In the United States (US), it has been estimated that as many as 126 million Americans (approximately half the US voting population) were exposed to fake news created by Russia during and after the 2016 US presidential election.
Spreading fake news may constitute a serious offence. If you spread fake news in Singapore, you may be liable for one or more of the following 6 offences:
1. Sending False Messages Which You Know to be False
Under section 45 of the Telecommunications Act, any person who transmits a message which he knows to be false will have committed an offence. For example, you could be liable for this offence if you spread messages that you know are false on the Internet.
If found guilty of this offence, you can be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 3 years. The penalties increase to up to a fine of $50,000 and/or up to 7 years’ jail if the false message relates to the presence of a bomb.
2. Spreading Fake Terrorist Threats
Regulation 8(1) of the United Nations (Anti-Terrorism Measures) Regulations makes it an offence for any person to communicate information which they know to be false, and which causes others to falsely believe that a terrorist act will be carried out. For example, you will likely be in breach of this regulation if you post a bomb hoax on social media.
Individuals convicted of this offence can be fined up to $500,000 and/or jailed for up to 10 years.
3. Promoting Enmity Between Racial or Religious Groups in Singapore
Under section 298A of the Penal Code, offenders who post fake news which disrupts the harmony between the racial or religious groups in Singapore can be fined, and/or jailed for up to 3 years.
4. Criminal Defamation
Section 499 of the Penal Code makes it an offence to publish false information about a person that is intended to harm that person’s reputation. For example, you will likely be committing an offence under this section if you published a false allegation on your blog that a certain person has loose morals.
Individuals who have committed an offence under this section can be fined, and/or jailed for up to 2 years.
5. Publishing Seditious Material
Publishing any material which may cause tension between the different classes or races of Singapore is an offence under section 4 of the Sedition Act. For example, you may be liable for this offence if you posted inflammatory messages on online forums about a particular racial or religious group in Singapore.
Committing an offence under this section will subject you to a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 3 years’ jail (up to 5 years’ jail for repeat offenders).
6. Spreading of False Statements Likely to Cause Public Alarm
Spreading false reports or making false statements likely to cause public alarm is an offence under section 26 of the Internal Security Act. Offenders can be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 1 year’s jail.
On top of the crimes mentioned above, the court may, under certain circumstances, order you to stop publishing the fake news.
As a whole, spreading fake news in Singapore can get you punished with very serious offences. Recognising how fake news is so easily spread online, the government is currently looking into this problem and may soon introduce new laws to address this issue.