Singapore's battle against disinformation and foreign influence bids

28 Aug 2022

Straits Times, 28 Aug 2022, Singapore's battle against disinformation and foreign influence bids
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, social media and messaging platforms here were abuzz with reactions to the attack.

Messages and video clips made the rounds after Singapore announced it would impose sanctions on Russia, with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan saying in Parliament the invasion was an existential issue for the Republic as it violated international norms.

Among these clips and messages that made their way to people's phones were pro-Russian messages that featured Americans.

One clip - flagged by WhatsApp as being "forwarded many times" - showed American political scientist John Mearsheimer saying it was the Western pursuit of Nato expansion in Ukraine that led to the war. He said: "Washington played the central role in leading Ukraine down the path of destruction. History will judge the US and its allies with abundant harshness for its remarkably foolish policy on Ukraine."

Another featured former US senator Richard Black saying how Russia has been "incredibly reserved" about not bombing buildings in the capital of Kyiv and other critical infrastructure in the hope that peace could be achieved.

One message spread on Facebook put it more pithily: "America lit the fire; Russia started the fire; Ukraine caught fire; India looking at the fire; China putting down the fire; Taiwan is playing with fire; Singapore gets itself on fire."

The issue of foreign disinformation was raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Aug 21, as he highlighted geopolitical challenges from heightened divisions between the US and China to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He urged Singaporeans to be sceptical of what they read on social media, especially messages that may carry narratives that are not aligned with Singapore's national interests. For instance, he said, some messages being spread about the Ukraine war may be attempting to stir up strong anti-American sentiments, while others aim to discredit Russia and China.

PM Lee noted that while most Singaporeans understood the Government's position on the war, some have questioned the need for Singapore to offend Russia, side with the US, and stick out its neck.

A more fractured world
Observers said that while the issue of foreign influence is not new, the increasingly fractured geopolitical landscape means there is more heated competition to sway Singaporeans to take sides.

The Ukraine war is not the only major global event this year that led to a deluge of such online posts. When United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a closely-watched trip to Taiwan this month - a move strongly opposed by China - posts supporting China's official position were put up.

Shortly after Mrs Pelosi's trip, a Singapore-based news outlet, which has nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook, posted a 2011 video of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew speaking at an entrepreneurs' convention.

In the clip, Mr Lee explained why he believed that the US would not intervene should a war break out between Taiwan and China, and that reunification was inevitable, although this would take time.

The clip attracted more than 650 comments from Singapore and overseas, and about 230,000 views.

The hashtag #pelosiiscrazy trended on TikTok and Twitter, with videos showing Chinese government officials and academics voicing their disapproval of her action, and war games conducted by the People's Liberation Army.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said narratives on Chinese social media could find their way to Singapore, across different platforms and even translated to other languages.

"What originates on WeChat need not necessarily stay there," he said, referring to the messaging platform widely used by the Chinese.

While some of the narratives being purveyed are pro-Russia, they could also be indirectly read as pro-China narratives, said Dr Jayakumar, who is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security.

Overarching themes that mislead to some extent suggest Nato forced the war on Russian President Vladimir Putin through a reckless expansion, and that he was left in an untenable position, with no choice but to defend his country.

Of particular concern is how these narratives, when taken together, could over time deepen anti-West antipathy here and in the region, and lead to misunderstandings when it comes to the principled position the Singapore Government has taken on this issue.

From Pofma to Fica
Recognising the potential scale of the threat of hostile information campaigns that are coordinated and often difficult to attribute, and with Singapore's sovereignty at stake, the Government has ramped up efforts against such campaigns over the last few years.

These include legislative measures such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), passed in 2019, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, passed in October last year, as well as an ongoing campaign by the National Library Board to build media literacy.

Asked why foreign actors seek to influence views here, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of RSIS, said it is related to how Singapore's policymakers view public opinion as a possible source of ideas.

"No one can claim complete understanding of any subject or challenges emerging from the volatile and complex world we are in," he said.

This is also why foreign actors believe it is worth their while to influence views here, especially as Singapore has a reputation for having well-considered views and plans when it comes to geopolitical and strategic issues, he said.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told The Sunday Times that since Fica's provisions on hostile information campaigns came into force on July 7, the Government has not detected any such campaigns targeted at Singapore, and the provisions in Fica have not been used.

But disinformation in the form of hearsay, rumours, half-truths or misleading statements that may not be easily identified as such could still do damage. Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said in a parliamentary reply in April that these could appear to come from sources that seem local or authentic at first glance. He said these "are all the more insidious as they behave or are passed off as part of legitimate domestic discourse".

Tactics and methods
While online messages that are pro-West could be found, Russia has been frequently identified in studies by think-tanks as carrying out disinformation campaigns targeted at the populations in other places, from Europe and the US to former Soviet states.

The Kremlin's disinformation efforts are significant as they rely on forming an early narrative and employ a wide range of outlets, channels and users to parrot this, according to a 2020 report by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Another country often cited for its online disinformation efforts in recent years is China. A widely cited 2021 study by a French think-tank highlighted how Beijing's influence operations "have been considerably hardened in recent years and its methods increasingly resemble Moscow's".

The 646-page report covered efforts that have been targeted at Singapore, particularly during a downturn in bilateral relations in late 2016, when Hong Kong Customs seized military vehicles belonging to Singapore.

Traces of the campaign can still be found. One YouTube account that was started in October 2016 has about 50 videos, mostly of Singapore political leaders speaking on topics related to China, such as its relationship with Western countries.

The most viewed item, with more than 3.4 million views and 11,400 comments, shows Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the University of Hong Kong in 1992.

"I have never believed that democracy breeds progress. I know it to have brought regression," he says in the video subtitled in Chinese.

Such messages often rely on third-party advocates who are not government officials, such as media pundits, academics and political leaders from other countries.

The use of such advocates is a clear social engineering tactic, said Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Given that these 'independent' experts come across as having the requisite expertise, yet demonstrate no vested interests or clear loyalties, their words will likely carry more weight than those of appointed spokesmen."

Whereas official state representatives are prone to triggering audiences' knee-jerk dismissal of their views, third-party commentators bear an imprimatur of objectivity and authority.

"Not only are they less likely to be ignored, they may in fact be taken seriously," she said.

She added that using such advocates could undermine the value of legitimate experts whose views are canvassed by credible media.

"This practice, if further abused, will engender suspicion of expert authorities and reduce trust in professional opinions, however objective and well-grounded," she said.

While the use of foreign propaganda and campaigns aimed at swaying the democratic processes of societies is nothing new, it is now a wide-scale problem amplified through social media, said Assistant Professor Saifuddin Ahmed from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

The reasons the actors do so are often to confuse and divide civil societies over critical social issues, which undermines civic trust in democratic institutions, he said.

"The functioning of any society rests on the trust between citizens and the government; if this bond is broken, it would be challenging to ensure the success of any public policy."

What more can be done
As an open, highly connected and diverse society, the authorities in Singapore have maintained that it is especially vulnerable to foreign interference. Experts such as Dr Jayakumar believe more must be done to raise awareness of the threat that foreign disinformation poses, as has been done for the threat of terrorism.

Part of the complexity is not being able to attribute the source of these disinformation threats as clearly as for terrorist plots.

Dr Jayakumar said: "It is easy to say self-radicalised or ISIS or Al-Qaeda for terrorism-related issues, but for the disinformation threat, we don't really do that. Serious thought needs to be given when it comes to the calculus of attribution - we know many powers wage information campaigns, and we don't necessarily need to point fingers on each and every occasion, but some sensitisation needs to be done."

MHA said the public should consider the accuracy and credibility of information they get by cross-checking with reputable, identifiable and institutional sources. This is to avoid becoming "unwitting mouthpieces" for hostile foreign actors, who are creative in the way they convey information.

In a recent commentary for ST, former senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan called for greater understanding of international affairs, including being aware of the "trope" of an inexorable rise of the East and the decline of the West.

"We live in an age where politics everywhere is increasingly identity politics and subject to a variety of external influences, many state-sponsored," he said. "The consequence is often confusion over our fundamental national interests at a time when clarity of thought is more than usually crucial."