Published: 26 November 2021
"Facets of disinformation - impact on states and societies"
1. A very good afternoon, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Dr Shashi Jayakumar, distinguished guests, members of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, as well as many faith and religious leaders, it’s good to see everybody again. I see familiar faces and familiar people around us. Thank you for inviting me to this year to the second series of the Olive TREE forum.
2. It's really nice to be back here to speak to all of you, and I really want to thank Humanity Matters for continuing to champion race and religious matters in Singapore. It’s something very close to our hearts, our values, and our existence. So, thank you very much for doing this. And today, we have an interesting topic that not just talks about race and religious harmony, but about how the medium by which information is being transmitted, can cause or can actually improve racial and religious harmony.
Disinformation in the Modern Society
3. The video also mentions about misinformation and disinformation, I thought it is good for us to make a distinction here. I think you're all familiar with misinformation, which is actually fake news, or false information, and it happens on a daily basis. We see this being transmitted across a myriad of topics including healthcare, economy, international relations, and domestic politics as well. And, misinformation can arise through different ways – such as because of carelessness, or even through ignorance or even deliberate measures.
4. But today, we are discussing something more serious. We're discussing “disinformation”. And disinformation refers to false information which are created and spread deliberately to deceive. So, the key distinction here is the intent, of false or misinformation, false information that one spreads, maybe even thinking that what they're spreading is true. But disinformation, are actually information, false information that is fed by someone who actually knows the information to be false, with the intention to discredit or deceive. It may involve state actors using information against adversaries and this can have devastating effects on nations, organisations and individuals.
5. The concept of disinformation is not new. For example, about 2000 years ago, during the Roman civil war between Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony. Augustus actually launched a disinformation campaign against Antony, to vie for public support. He claimed that Antony was actually corrupted by his love affair with Cleopatra, and therefore not fit to lead or to hold office. Augustus actually spread this message to the public through poetry and slogans that were engraved on the coins – coins used by the populace. Eventually, the Senate stripped Antony of his right to lead Roman soldiers and even labelled him as a traitor. Augustus gained popularity and public trust, and became the first Emperor of Rome.
6. Now, we fast forward to the 20th century, where new forms of media such as television, newspapers and radio became more easily accessible and cheaper ways of getting information out to the public. Another example – during the Cold War in 1983, the Soviets launched an AIDS disinformation campaign where they spread news through newspapers, television, radio and other media forms, that AIDS was actually a product of the US’s secret military experiment. The campaign was extremely effective – it played into distrust in US institutions, and sowed divisions among Americans, as people around the world, including in the US, came to believe that the US government was responsible for AIDS.
7. Now in present day, the internet and social media, as shown in the video earlier, has become a game-changer in disinformation campaigns. Technology has allowed false information to be weaponised in an unprecedented scale and speed. Malicious actors may use a variety of tools such as bots, click farms, or exploit algorithms to make online falsehoods more visible to others. They can also manipulate media to create fake videos and audio of people saying or doing things that they actually did not. In some cases, you might have heard the word “deepfakes”, and the fakes can be very, very realistic.
8. It is easy and cheap to create and spread fake content. It was reported that during the US Election in 2016, foreign actors spent just over US$100,000 on Facebook advertisements to reach 126 million US users.
The Aggressors of Disinformation and Their Objectives
9. The aggressors of disinformation actually have a few objectives. And with these low-cost and user-friendly methods, anyone can exploit the digital battlefield, from states to organisations, to even individuals.
10. For example, states may launch hostile information campaigns to destabilise their adversaries. State to state. According to the Oxford Internet Institute, 81 countries have used social media and disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion on politics. The report identified troll farms in Nigeria with suspected connections to the Internet Research Agency in Russia, that targeted the United States and the United Kingdom, in spreading conspiracies around social issues to polarise online discourse.
11. Terrorist organisations have also used the internet to radicalise people around the world. For example, in 2017, ISIS posted a recruitment video on social media, featuring a Singaporean radicalised fighter in Syria and calling upon viewers to take up armed violence. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, Muis, had to release a media statement to point out the distortions and falsehoods in the video.
Dangers and Challenges to Nations and Governments
12. Disinformation is a pernicious threat because falsehoods, once they are propagated, are likely to trump facts in the information space. Falsehoods can be exaggerated and sensational, baiting persons to pass on the falsehood to their own little social circles. A 2018 MIT study found that falsehoods were 70% more likely to be re-tweeted on Twitter than the truth. In addition, studies have shown that even if falsehoods are later corrected, people tend to reject corrections that are inconsistent with their worldview. These corrections may not also reach the same group of people who had been exposed to the falsehoods in the first place.
13. Such disinformation can actually weaken societies in several ways.
14. First, it can amplify distrust, resentment and even fear in Governments, institutions, and among fellow citizens. From the video we saw earlier – the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have characterised the unprecedented spread of misinformation and disinformation during the COVID-19 health crisis as an “infodemic”. Studies show that disinformation has caused confusion and led people in other countries to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health advisories and measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatment techniques. Research has also shown that being exposed to large amount of false information can make people stop believing in facts and decrease their engagement in public discourse.
15. Secondly, it can undermine democratic processes. Falsehoods can sway voting behaviour and cast doubt on the legitimacy of election outcomes. In the lead-up to the storming of the US Capitol, Donald Trump and his supporters made unsubstantiated claims that the Democrats tried to “steal the election” and that dead individuals’ identities were used to cast ballots. Such disinformation efforts to delegitimise the election process were effective amongst Trump’s supporters – various surveys conducted in the US suggested that about 70 to 80% of Republicans believed that the election was rigged.
16. Lastly, it can undermine social cohesion by exploiting sensitive fault lines, or further entrench extreme views which can polarise or even paralyse societies. And for a multicultural and open society like Singapore, this is indeed a danger that we must carefully guard against.
Singapore’s Susceptibility to Disinformation
17. Singapore is highly vulnerable to disinformation. Market research company, Ipsos, conducted a survey in 2018, and found that 91% of Singaporean respondents incorrectly identified one or more falsehoods as real and truthful content, despite almost 80% saying they were somewhat or very confident to be able to spot any kind of fake news. The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) conducted a survey in 2020 and found that less than one-third of the respondents successfully recognised a “news article” that had been manipulated. Less than one-third.
18. The results of the surveys are worrying. In Singapore, we have experienced Hostile Information Campaigns that attempted to undermine Singapore’s foreign policy position. In December 2018, when bilateral issues with our immediate neighbour were at the top of the news, we noticed a curious spike in online comments on social media platforms made from avatar accounts. These are anonymous accounts with profile pictures that do not show any owner’s face. Many of these comments were critical of Singapore. While we do not know who these suspicious accounts belong to and whether they are being coordinated by foreign actors, it is clear that these accounts had sought to create an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position, at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties. This shows how foreign actors can interfere in Singapore’s politics through online campaigns and false information.
19. The Select Committee on Deliberate Falsehoods also provided extensive evidence that suggest foreign state-linked disinformation had already occurred in Singapore. Dr Gulizar Haciyakupoglu from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) described some of the indicators of information warfare being carried out against Singapore, including a state using news articles and social media to influence the minds of a segment of Singapore population, and to legitimise the State’s actions in the international sphere. Dr Shashi was also a representator of the Committee, and had shared his views about disinformation campaigns that were often covert and cumulative. I am sure we will hear a lot more from him later.
20. The report by the Committee put together a shared understanding of the problem and recommended the approach for Singapore in combating deliberate online falsehoods. The Committee also found that Government intervention, including through legislation, is necessary to disrupt online falsehoods. So how do countries around the world respond to countering disinformation?
Countries’ Response to Countering Disinformation
Other Countries’ Approaches
21. We know there is no perfect solution, and measures taken by states have to be contextualised to the respective nation’s norms. Other countries have developed various ways to attempt to tackle this threat. Let me share with you some.
22. For example, Germany and France have introduced laws to empower authorities to act against online falsehoods. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, enacted in 2017, requires large social networks to take down illegal content, which includes hate speech and defamation, within 24 hours of it being reported by users. France’s Information Manipulation Law provides for a judge to issue a directive to platforms within 48 hours to remove or access-block content, or to de-reference it from search engines. These powers target the spread of misinformation during election periods, and the artificial propagation through bots and other paid content.
23. The UK is also considering increasing accountability of online platforms. It has proposed an Online Safety Bill which imposes a broad statutory of care for online companies to “minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation”, including reducing the visibility of content disputed by reputable fact-checking services.
24. In Singapore, we enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in 2019. Since its enactment, we have used POFMA to debunk various falsehoods such as allegations of the government favouring foreigners over locals, mismanaging public funds, or the Police abusing their power. These false narratives can promote ill-will and hostility among different groups in Singapore and erode trust in our public institutions. More recently, we have issued numerous correction directions against COVID-19 related falsehoods. Last month, the Ministry of Health issued a correction direction to the Truth Warriors website for false claims about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, and the safety and efficacy of ivermectin in preventing and treating COVID-19.
25. We have also recently passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) which strengthens our ability to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in our domestic politics conducted through online Hostile Information Campaigns, which can include disinformation operations by foreign hands.
26. So, basically governments have a strong role to play – and in Singapore, we have been monitoring the online landscape very closely, learning from other cities and states, and acting swiftly to put in place the right levers to guard against harms from disinformation.
27. But the very first line of defence against disinformation is always the people. This is why we have also ramped up efforts to empower individuals to be more discerning consumers and spreaders of information. These include fostering a more informed public through public education and strengthening media literacy starting from children in schools.
28. Disinformation has infiltrated into our society in various issues of interest and concern. We need to continue to work together as a society, to strengthen our defences against online falsehoods, and protect our interests.
29. I look forward to hearing more ideas at the panel discussion later, and wish everybody a good day. Thank you.