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Minlaw: Combating Online Falsehoods (aka Fake News)

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Pelosi videos manipulated to make her appear drunk are being shared on social media:

How the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Applies (from MinLaw)

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Hong Kong protests and ‘fake news’: in the psychological war for hearts and minds, disinformation becomes a weapon used by both sides
Linda Lew | 14 Oct, 2019

It’s hard for the public to know what to believe, as both camps present skewed versions of protest events. Illustration: Kaliz Lee

Masato Kajimoto is leading a University of Hong Kong (HKU) team scrutinising images, videos and any information from the ongoing anti-government protests, trying to tell which are real, misleading or fake.

It is hard work. In September alone, there were no fewer than 5,000 images shared in a single channel of Telegram, the messaging application used widely by protesters
for updates on demonstrations now in their fifth month.

It is almost impossible to verify the authenticity of every image, says Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the university’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
What is clear is that different camps in the ongoing unrest spread selective images and videos to sway public opinion, and disinformation is not only part of the game but a “psychological warfare” tool wielded by both sides.

“It is really hard to win somebody’s heart with just facts and accurate information,” he said. “You have to appeal to people’s emotions.”

And that can mean presenting an incomplete, misleading or false picture of what is happening on the ground.

Scholars say that, as the protests continue, the problem of disinformation is worsening. And, as Hongkongers consume media content that fails to present the whole truth, society is in danger of being polarised to such an extent that reconciliation between opposing sides will become even more difficult.
Flash mob protests, vandalism flare up across Hong Kong as police fire tear gas

To illustrate how each side can present the same incident in different ways and evoke strong, opposing reactions, Kajimoto referred to an incident at Sham Shui Po on October 6, when a taxi driver was beaten by a mob after his vehicle ran into a crowd and left a woman seriously injured.

The video clip shared extensively among social media groups supporting the protesters focused on the earlier part of the incident, when the taxi was seen moving into a crowd of black-clad demonstrators, sparking panic and screams.

It appeared to back the protesters’ claim that the cabby had deliberately driven into the protesters, intending to harm them.

However, pro-government groups shared a video clip of what happened afterwards, showing a mob smashing the taxi with rods and dragging the driver out, with graphic images of the 59-year-old cabby covered in blood.

I tell my students that unless you know exactly what happened from the beginning to the end, you cannot make any conclusion Masato Kajimoto, HKU assistant professor

The cabby’s association issued a statement condemning the assault, saying the driver lost control of his vehicle after protesters attacked it.

Kajimoto said such selective representation made it nearly impossible to form an objective opinion of the incident.

“I tell my students that unless you know exactly what happened from the beginning to the end, you cannot make any conclusion,” he said.

What to believe, who to trust?

Associate Professor Donna Chu, from the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University, said the spread of disinformation was a result of fundamental changes in the media environment and the development of information technology.

Sources of information have proliferated and in the protests, many get their updates and swap live news, pictures and video over social media sites and mobile applications such as Telegram, LIHKG, WhatsApp, Line and Facebook.

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Disinformation was rampant and that meant people needed to be more vigilant about verifying the accuracy of the news they received, Chu said.

In a telephone poll commissioned by Hong Kong daily Ming Pao, 842 people rated on a scale of 0 to 10 the form of media they valued as an important source of news on the protests.

Media live streaming from the scene received the highest average score of 8.12, well above the 6.85 for traditional media and 6.01 for social media.

The director of Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication, Francis Lee Lap-fung, said in an opinion piece for the daily that live streaming, with its instant delivery, made audiences feel they were participating in history and its unedited nature gave the impression that it was free from editorial control and selection.

In a handbook on fact-checking to help journalism educators, trainers and students deal with the issue of “fake news”, the UN’s heritage body Unesco describes three categories of “untruths”.

Misinformation refers to false information that is not meant to cause harm; disinformation is blatantly false information created to cause harm to individuals or groups; and mal-information is information based on reality and used to harm a person or group.

Elderly protesters rally at police headquarters in support of alleged abuse victims

Disinformation campaigns can have serious consequences.

In the run-up to the 2016 United States presidential election, a “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory spread widely on social media, alleging that several restaurants and Democratic Party officials were involved in human trafficking and running child sex rings.

A man who believed the story went to a Washington pizza restaurant falsely accused of being involved and discharged his gun. The theory has been widely debunked.

It makes matters worse when people in powerful positions make use of disinformation.

Kajimoto pointed to US President Donald Trump, who has been criticised countless times for making statements that are misleading or outright untrue, even as he has been unrelenting in attacking the credibility of media outlets.

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor
and cabinet member Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun have both made claims based on unverified messages circulating online.

On Tuesday, Lam said protesters had set up roadblocks on highways and checked the identification documents of people in vehicles. She had no proof of the incident, but said it had been “circulated online recently and probably happened”.

Law was criticised for claiming last month that a 14-year-old girl had provided “free sex
” to protesters.

Asked for more information, she produced a message circulating on WhatsApp and claimed that “a cruise buddy” told her it was true.

Dr Fu King-wa, an associate professor at HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said although Law was not the source of the claim, she lent credibility to unverified information.

“She is a public figure and because of her political power, by quoting misinformation, she introduced unfounded accusations to the public domain,” he said.

Chinese state media have also been accused of reporting disinformation related to the Hong Kong protests.

After Law made the news with her “free sex” remarks, state-backed tabloid Global Times posted a video of an unidentified 16-year-old girl claiming she was sexually assaulted by some protesters she befriended.

However, Hong Kong online users slammed the report, calling it fake. Comments left on a copy of the video hosted on YouTube said the Cantonese phrases used by the girl were not common in Hong Kong. They doubted if the girl was from the city at all.

Last month, Twitter suspended more than 200,000 mainland China-based accounts that formed a spam network, saying close to 1,000 of them were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong”.

Lies spread faster than facts

In Hong Kong, setting the facts straight on incidents involving police presents a special challenge because of plummeting trust in the force.

On August 31, for example, police and protesters clashed inside Prince Edward MTR station, leading to a number of injuries.

When the number of people hurt was revised, a rumour began circulating that police had beaten some protesters to death. Photos of bodies were shared online, along with the claim that these were people arrested on August 31.

Government officials, police, MTR Corporation and the fire service tried to explain multiple times that there were no deaths that day, but some anti-government protesters continue purveying the debunked rumour.

Protesters who began gathering outside Prince Edward station demanding “truth and justice” have continued to do so off and on until now.

Kajimoto said the incident and its aftermath showed how trust in the police had declined to such a level that a section of the public did not believe what the police force said any more.

“If somebody floats conspiracy theories on social media and you’re against the police, you believe that. Or you don’t care if it’s true or not,” he said.
Scramble to protect district council polls candidates from doxxing

In the Ming Pao poll, almost half of the respondents said they had zero trust in police, a dramatic fall since May and June, when only 4 per cent said they had no trust in the force.

Scholars said the disinformation related to the protests was unlikely to end because the ongoing crisis needed a political solution.

“False information is the tip of the iceberg,” Kajimoto said. “This is just a symptom and it’s not the cause of the problem. If we cannot cure the cause of the polarisation, this will never stop.”

In the meantime, Fu said, people needed to hone their media literacy skills and never forward unconfirmed information, as it could be false and have a significant impact on recipients.

“People might believe something not because of the information itself, but because it came from you,” he said.

Some social media users have started a fact-checking effort, reminding everyone to pause and ensure a piece of information is accurate before forwarding it to others.

A Facebook page called “Kauyim”, the Cantonese term for “verify”, has attracted more than 122,000 followers to its updates, debunking fake online posts relating to the protests.

Describing who they are and what they do, the Kauyim team of anonymous volunteers says in the introduction to the page: “We are fact-checkers and rumour-busters. Facts triumph over lies. Rumours are most afraid of the wise.”

People might believe something not because of the information itself, but because it came from you Fu King-wa, HKU associate professor

In existence since 2014, the group has not stated its political position and debunks both anti-government and pro-government disinformation.

The challenge with fact-checking, however, is that it takes time and effort to verify a piece of news, by which time the false information could already have gone viral.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers who looked at Twitter data retrieved between 2006 and 2017 found that falsehoods travelled six times faster than truths.

As Kajimoto put it: “Fact-checked stories don’t really go viral.”

Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei and Gigi Choy


Opposition member told to correct FB post as Govt uses fake news law
David Sun | Nov 26, 2019

Mr Brad Bowyer, a member of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), has been issued a directive to correct false statements under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), the first time Singapore's law against fake news has been used.

Mr Bowyer was issued a correction direction yesterday by the Pofma Office under the instruction of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat over a Facebook post he made on Nov 13, in which he implied the Government was involved in investment decisions made by GIC and Temasek Holdings.

It required that Mr Bowyer put up in full a correction note along with his post, that remained online.

In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said it was necessary to clarify the false statements in the post.

"Mr Bowyer's post contains clearly false statements of fact, and undermines public trust in the Government," it said.

"GIC and Temasek operate on a commercial basis, and the Government is not involved in their individual investment decisions."

Less than three hours after issuing a correction on his Facebook, Mr Bowyer made another post claiming he did not assert some of the falsehoods.

The New Paper understands that the MOF is aware of his most recent post.

Pofma came into effect on Oct 2. It gives ministers the power to act against online falsehood when it is in the public interest to do so.

They can order that it be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside.

Individuals who fail to comply with the direction can be fined up to $20,000, or jailed for up to a year, or both.

Mr Bowyer edited his Nov 13 post at about noon yesterday, saying it "contains false statements of fact".

After issuing the correction, he posted a statement on Facebook at 12.20pm that he had done so in response to the correction direction.

"I have no problem in following that request as I feel it is fair to have both points of view and clarifications and corrections of fact when necessary," he said.

But at about 2.30pm, he put up another post claiming he had not asserted some of the falsehoods, responding to each statement made by state-run webpage Factually on the case.

Factually had published an article yesterday on falsehoods in Mr Bowyer's Nov 13 post.


It listed statements by Mr Bowyer regarding the Government's involvement in the investment decisions of Temasek and GIC, the Amaravati Project in Andhra Pradesh, India, and the Salt Bae steakhouse chain.

It said Mr Bowyer's claim that $4 billion was poorly invested in the Amaravati Project by government-linked companies was false, and that costs were limited to design services that amounted to a few million dollars.

Factually also refuted Mr Bowyer's assertions that Temasek invested in the "debt-ridden" parent company which owns Salt Bae. The article said Temasek invested in D.ream International BV, which operates 60 restaurants worldwide, and not its shareholder Dogus Holding A.S, the parent company of Salt Bae.

Factually also listed clarifications to Mr Bowyer's statements regarding Keppel and Bharti Airtel.

Speaking to TNP yesterday, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said some might feel that Pofma is a tool to quell dissent after it was used against someone in the political sphere.

But he explained that the use of Pofma on political figures is a result of the public nature of their position.

"A false or misleading statement of public interest is likely to come from someone in politics because such individuals are by the very nature of their position public and can influence the public discourse," he said.

"It shouldn't surprise us because Pofma seeks to ensure public discourse takes place with accurate facts.

"If public discourse is premised on falsehoods and inaccurate information, then society would be the ultimate loser."


Corrections and clarifications regarding falsehoods posted by Mr Brad Bowyer

1. The Facebook post by Mr Brad Bowyer contains false statements of fact and misleading statements.


I.  Singapore Government’s involvement in investment decisions by Temasek and GIC

2. Mr Bowyer implies that the Singapore Government controls Temasek’s and GIC’s commercial decisions. This is false.

3. The Government does not influence, let alone direct, the individual investment decisions made by Temasek and GIC. Which companies they invest in, or divest from, is entirely the responsibility of their respective management teams. The Government likewise does not interfere in the commercial decisions of Temasek’s and GIC’s portfolio companies.

4. Temasek and GIC are run on market principles, independent of the Government. Many of their portfolio companies are publicly listed. The Government’s role is to ensure that Temasek and GIC have competent boards, which ensure that their respective mandates are met. The Government also holds the boards of Temasek and GIC accountable for their respective overall performances.

II.  Amaravati Project

5. Mr Bowyer says “…we also saw the recent canning of the Amaravati city project part of the S$4 billion already dumped into Andhra Pradesh by GLCs and related parties so India has not been so good an investment choice after all…”. There are implicit factual assertions that (1) a substantial part of S$4 billion invested in Andhra Pradesh was put into the Amaravati project; and (2) S$4 billion has been poorly invested (“dumped”) by Government-linked companies (“GLCs”) and related parties in Andhra Pradesh. These are false.

6. First, the Singapore Consortium (comprising Ascendas Singbridge Pte Ltd (now part of CapitaLand Group) and Sembcorp Development Ltd) in the Amaravati project has stated publicly that the costs incurred have been limited to design services prior to commencement of execution works on the ground, amounting to a few million dollars. There are no billions of dollars involved.
7. Second, not only GLCs and related parties have invested in Andhra Pradesh. Several other Singaporean companies have also done so. An example of a non-GLC investment in Andhra Pradesh is Indus Coffee Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of a listed company in Singapore. 

III.  Salt Bae

8. Mr Bowyer asserts that Temasek invested in the debt-ridden parent company which owns Salt Bae. This is false.

9. The Salt Bae chain of restaurants is owned by a company called D.ream International BV, which operates 60 restaurants throughout the world via four operating subsidiaries. Temasek invested in D.ream International BV, and not in one of D.ream International BV’s shareholders called Doğuş Holding A.Ş. The company that is reportedly in difficulties according to the article cited by Mr Bowyer, is Doğuş Holding A.Ş., and not D.ream International BV.

Additional Clarifications

10. Additional clarifications on the points Mr Bowyer has raised are set out below.

Temasek, GIC and public funds

11. Mr Bowyer uses false and misleading statements to smear the reputation of Temasek and GIC:

a. Over the past 20 years, Temasek’s total shareholder return has been 7% (annualised, in SGD terms). Temasek’s overall portfolio has grown from less than S$100 billion in 2002 to over S$300 billion today.

b. Temasek is subject to market scrutiny and discipline. Since 2004, Temasek has published its financial information annually. Temasek also issues Bonds and Eurocommercial Paper to retail, institutional, accredited and other specified investors as part of its financial discipline. Additionally, Temasek has been rated Aaa by Moody’s Investors Service and AAA by S&P Global Ratings, ever since its inaugural ratings in 2004.

c. Under the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework, the expected returns of Temasek, GIC and MAS together, contribute around 20% of Government revenue currently. The Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) is the single largest contributor to Government revenue, exceeding GST.

d. This contrasts starkly with most other countries. In the United States, 1 out of every 10 dollars of US federal government revenue goes towards servicing interest payments on the federal debt. In Singapore, 1 out of every 5 dollars of revenue spent comes from the returns on our reserves. In other words, instead of having to tax citizens to service interest on government debt, Singapore has managed to increase social and other spending through NIRC from Temasek, GIC and MAS, while keeping taxes low.

e. Temasek and GIC are managed prudently and competently. No other sovereign wealth funds have contributed so significantly to national budgets and the economy, without relying on natural resources or a large domestic economy.


12. Mr Bowyer suggests Keppel Corporation or its subsidiary has suffered losses due to the $0.5 billion fine imposed. This is misleading.

13. In the last 33 years, Keppel has made profits every year. In the last 4 years, Keppel has made profits of S$3.4 billion, including a S$196 million net profit in the year when the Brazilian fine was imposed. Keppel has been declaring dividends regularly as a listed company to all its shareholders, including Temasek.

Bharti Airtel

14. Mr Bowyer refers to Singtel’s investment in Bharti Airtel. Singtel’s shareholding today is valued at S$13 billion, which is more than double its investment to date of S$5.1 billion. Bharti Airtel faces a number of recent regulatory and Indian Supreme Court decisions. These are matters for Bharti Airtel and Singtel to address.

Amaravati Project

15. Mr Bowyer suggests that S$4 billion in investments by GLCs and related parties in Andhra Pradesh have all been doing poorly. Mr Bowyer makes this sweeping statement, but gives no basis for it.



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