Fighting Wuhan coronavirus misinformation: The Singapore approach

February 5, 2020

When Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was enacted on 2 October 2019, just about 5 months after it was passed in Parliament, many attributed this haste to potential elections in 2020. Sceptics and sensationalist media lambasted POFMA as a tool created for the ruling party to silence critics and the opposition. But in the past few days, Singaporeans have probably come to appreciate the existence of POFMA.

Various countries have reported that misinformation about the Wuhan coronavirus has been growing. Singapore has not been spared, and the Singapore Government has been quick to use POFMA against this scourge. 

It started on 26 January when an anonymous user created a post in a popular online forum claiming that a man had died in Singapore from the coronavirus. Within 24 hours, the Minister for Health issued a General Correction Direction requiring the forum to carry a Correction Notice.

On 28 January, several Facebook posts claimed that that a train station had been closed for disinfection due to a suspected case of the coronavirus infection. The Minister for Transport issued a Targeted Correction Direction to Facebook requiring it to carry a Correction Notice on two Facebook posts containing the falsehood.

On 30 January, the Straits Times Review (STR) posted on Facebook that a Senior Minister of State had confirmed that Singapore had run out of face masks. The Minister for Trade and Industry issued a Correction direction to Alex Tan Zhi Xiang, STR’s editor, and a Targeted Correction Direction to Facebook.

On the same day, many Singaporeans learned for the first time from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) that some internet intermediaries had been temporarily exempted from certain sections of POFMA from the time that it was enacted. They included Google, Facebook, Twitter, Baidu, and WeChat.

The MCI announced that the temporary exemption in relation to General Correction Directions would be lifted from the next day. It said that this was “critical given the evolving situation with the Wuhan Coronavirus”, and that:

The Government is prepared to use all tools at its disposal to provide the public with accurate and up-to-date information, and to deal with falsehoods that may cause panic or confusion. We have worked closely with the relevant technology companies, and appreciate the industry’s support and cooperation in our national response to this challenging situation.

Indeed, the MCI has encouraged members of the public to report suspected falsehoods to the POFMA Office, and the Singapore Government has set up a WhatsApp account from which it has been sending subscribers the latest information about the coronavirus. This is what the its WhatsApp messages look like:

screenshot of whatsapp message from Singapore government

On 31 January, a website called “City News” published an article claiming that five Singaporeans had contracted the coronavirus without having travelled to China. Opposition member Lim Tean, and a Facebook Page clearly belonging to the opposition, shared the article on their Facebook pages. All three received Correction Directions from the Minister for Trade and Industry. It was the second time that Lim, a lawyer, had been POFMA’d. But what was more interesting was the service by the POFMA Office of the Correction Direction on the Facebook Page:

screenshot of singapore government facebook correction message

Darren Grayson Chng is our International Associate Editor for Singapore