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Coronavirus misinformation in social media age underscores need for Singapore-like fake news laws

The spread of fake news through social media platforms amid the outbreak of coronavirus has reinforced the convictions surrounding the significance of laws aimed at taking swift action against the cyber misinformants.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA- The spread of fake news through social media platforms amid the outbreak of coronavirus has reinforced the convictions surrounding the significance of laws aimed at taking swift action against the cyber misinformants.

In Singapore, the debate surrounding The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) — which came into effect in October last year — was rekindled following the spread of distorted claims and misinformation on coronavirus at a time when the country has reported more than 110 cases.

Fake news has been an ongoing phenomenon in the city-state for more than a decade now. The law was thus necessary to tackle growing concerns over the scourge of misinformation.

POFMA seeks to prevent the electronic communication of falsehoods as well as to safeguard against the use of online platforms for the communication of such falsehoods.

Under POFMA, publishing false statements with “malicious intent” attracts fines of up to USD 731,000 and jail sentences of up to 10 years. It is for such stringent punishment that the law has faced criticism from civil activists, NGOs and opposition figures since its implementation on October 2, 2019.

“Amid the spread of coronavirus, there is an increasing propensity among people to create more panic. Fake records and fake news is being generated. Consequently, the countries are realising that unless they do not take strong penal action against the perpetrators of this fake news, such factitious pieces of news are going to spread like wildfire,” said Pavan Duggal, an Indian advocate who specialises in Cyber laws.

The problems of disinformation in a society like India has proved to be far more challenging than the west.

“When it comes to India, we find that the country does not have a dedicated law for fake news at all. You could try to book them (the misinformation) under some provisions under the Indian Penal Code, but they are not very effective,” Duggal said.

“It is time that India wakes up from its slumber and come out with a new law on fake news,” he added.

The bone of contention around such laws, however, remains that they can be misused for arbitrary detentions, ostracising political opponents, or suppressing dissent.

“Any fake news law must pass the parameters of the principles enshrined under the Constitution of the country. In case any fake news law is in violation of such parameters, it can always be challenged in the court. In India, we have a bigger problem facing us, which is that we do not have the law in the first place,” he added.