19 Feb 2020

    This Man's Facebook Page Was Blocked For Spreading False Information About The Coronavirus

    Facebook warned against the potential "overreach" of Singapore's anti-fake news law as it blocked a page that was flagged for spreading false information about the coronavirus.

    Supplied

    A screenshot obtained from the State Times Review of what Singaporean Facebook users see when they try to access the Facebook page.

    In a first, Facebook has blocked access to a Facebook page for Singaporean users, due to a government order under the country's controversial fake news law.

    A Facebook spokesperson announced last night that it would restrict access to the States Times Review Facebook page, but hit out against the Singaporean government's use of the new Protection From Online Falsehoods And Manipulation (POFMA) Act.

    "We believe orders like this are disproportionate and contradict the government's claim that POFMA would not be used as a censorship tool," a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "We've repeatedly highlighted this law's potential for overreach and we're deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore."

    States Times Review is run by Singaporean citizen and Australian resident Alex Tan. Tan started the page in 2015 and uses it to publish anti-government news and commentary to the page's 54,000 followers.

    BuzzFeed News previously reported that Tan was the first person to have a "correction" placed on a post by Facebook under the POFMA Act.

    Singapore's minister for communications and information Mr S. Iswaran instructed the country's POFMA office to issue Facebook a disabling notice on Feb. 17 after the States Times Review page failed to respond to an order earlier this week.

    "The States Times Review Facebook page has repeatedly conveyed falsehoods and not complied with any of the POFMA directions that it has been served with," he wrote.

    On Feb. 15, the page was designated as a "declared online location" by the government — again, a first — after Tan shared multiple falsehoods about coronavirus. The declaration came after Tan had been issued with and ignored three correction directions.

    The declaration required the States Times Review Facebook page to feature a notice that it was a declared online location that has a "history of communicating falsehoods". The order also made it an offence to make money off the page and prohibited anyone from giving financial support to the page.

    But following the disabling notice on Feb. 17 and Facebook taking action, the page is now blocked altogether in Singapore.

    Despite all this, Tan is pleased with the outcome.

    "[Facebook] has done well," Tan told BuzzFeed News in a message. "I have also achieved what I intended which is exposing the hypocrisy of the Singaporean government. I believe I won."

    Tan believes that the order exposes the government's claims that the POFMA Act won't be used to censor dissent. He also disputes that his most recent flagged post contains falsehoods.

    "People will now know words from the regime can't be trusted. Legalised corruption is very real, even in a democracy," he said.

    Prior to Facebook's decision, Tan had attempted to circumvent the law by changing the page's URL, requesting to change the page's name, and advising his audience to change their browser's DNS settings.

    Once BuzzFeed News showed him Facebook's statement, Tan said he planned to start up a new page that he hoped wouldn't be subject to the order.

    "Hah thanks. I will be busy from here on. New page from zero," he wrote.

    Cameron Wilson is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

    Contact Cameron Wilson at cameron.wilson@buzzfeed.com.

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