Hostile Information Campaigns and Foreign Interference
An inter-connected threat that has grown in the digital age is the emergence of hostile information campaigns (HICs) and foreign interference (FI). As part of a hybrid attack, a country may face economic and/or diplomatic pressures, cyber-attacks, HICs and/or foreign interference. HICs/FI aim to exploit social divides, weaken public trust in the government and amongst the community, and sow anxiety. The prevalent use of the Internet and social media and the anonymity they accord have exacerbated these threats.
As Singapore works towards being a Smart Nation, digital technology will pervade all aspects of our lives. While the digital revolution presents opportunities for Singapore, it also makes us vulnerable to threats from the digital domain. Singapore’s size, hyper-connectivity and multi-ethnic and multi-religious society make us even more of a target, as shown in local examples.
Back in the 1970s, local newspapers, Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald, received funding from foreign sources and in return, ran articles that sought to undermine nascent nation-building efforts.
In a speech by Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law Mr K Shanmugam at the Second Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill on 4 October 2021, he said that during a period when Singapore experienced a bilateral issue with another country between 2016 and 2017, Singapore encountered activities which attempted to undermine our foreign policy position. Online commentaries and videos were uploaded by social media accounts which had lain dormant for many years. Many of these were in Mandarin and targeted our Chinese-speaking population. These contents were also widely circulated via chat applications and aimed to influence sentiments among Singaporeans.
He also mentioned that in 2018, during a period of bilateral tension with another country, we saw a large spike in online comments critical of Singapore, and many came from anonymous accounts. They sought to give an artificial impression of widespread objection to Singapore’s position.
In 2017, Huang was identified as an agent-of-influence of a foreign country and subsequently expelled from Singapore for collaborating with foreign intelligence agents in an attempt to influence senior decision makers in the Singapore government.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore, there were also multiple instances of fake news. At its height in 2020, hundreds of fake news stories and fake government announcements were passed around through WhatsApp and Telegram groups and other messaging and social media platforms. One warned that supermarkets would be open for only two days a week, while others claimed that Singapore had run out of masks. This resulted in panic buying of supplies, and Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong had to reassure the public there were sufficient supplies. The person who had spread the fake news that supermarkets would be open for only two days was caught and charged in court.
These episodes illustrate how Singapore, as a highly connected, multi-religious and multiracial society, can become a target for divisive falsehoods. Through fake news and falsehoods, potential aggressors can exploit these vulnerabilities to harm our country. They may disrupt our way of life, affect our hearts and minds, influence our perceptions of issues and how we behave, reduce public confidence in public institutions, and undermine our social cohesion and psychological resilience.
Examples of Foreign Interference in Other Countries
For many countries, elections are the main way by which a government is chosen to lead and organise society. By tampering or interfering with the elections, these state actors are looking to destabilise the target’s government or to influence results in their favour.
For example, the United States (US) Government has alleged that Russia interfered in the 2020 US Presidential elections. US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had backed Presidential candidate Donald Trump over Presidential candidate Joe Biden, with a Kremlin official attempting to discredit the election process.
In the United Kingdom, domestic unhappiness was exploited during the referendum on Brexit in 2016. Anti-immigration falsehoods were propagated by foreign-linked social media accounts to build a narrative that the government had failed to protect its citizens.
Examples of foreign interference in Singapore and other countries. Image: MHA.
Safeguarding Singapore Against Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs) and Foreign Interference (FI)
To combat HICs/FI, Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) on 8 May 2019, and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) on 4 October 2021. POFMA seeks to safeguard against the spread of falsehoods via electronic means and online platforms. FICA aims to strengthen Singapore’s ability to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in its domestic politics conducted through HICs and the use of local proxies.
HICs involve the covert manipulation of domestic political discourse to advance the hostile actor’s objectives, which may range from destabilising the target country through inciting or inflaming social tensions, manipulating public opinion on sensitive issues, or undermining the public’s trust in the country’s institutions.
Under FICA, the Minister for Home Affairs will have the powers to issue directions to various individuals and entities, such as social media services, relevant electronic services, and Internet access services, to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin. These directions allow the government to (a) obtain information on foreign interference operations, (b) prevent HIC activity from taking place, and (c) swiftly block or contain the propagation of harmful HIC content.
Countering the Use of Local Proxies
Local proxies may also be used to interfere in political processes, or government decision-making. Tactics include funding or providing non-monetary support for specific entities and persons who are actively engaged in politics or who are in positions of power or influence over governmental decisions.
Under FICA, individuals and organisations who are directly involved in Singapore’s political processes will be defined as “Politically Significant Persons” (“PSPs”). These include political parties, political office holders, and Members of Parliament. In addition, a competent authority, appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, can designate other individuals and organisations as PSPs if their activities are directed towards a political end, and the competent authority assesses that it is in the public interest that countermeasures be applied.
Defined and designated PSPs will be subjected to countermeasures covering the following vectors of foreign interference – (a) donations, (b) volunteers, (c) leadership and membership, and (d) affiliations. If there are increased risks of foreign interference, the competent authority can step up countermeasures on the defined and designated PSPs.
Countermeasures recommended by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Image: iMDA/ POFMA Office.
Understanding the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA). Image: MHA.
Building Public Awareness
Government agencies have also been providing real-time updates on their websites. For instance, the Ministry of Health will quickly post information on its official website to debunk fake news. When a Facebook post stated that a three-year-old pre-schooler had died from COVID-19 in August 2021, MOH clarified that the story was false.
The government has also been actively addressing and debunking fake news through official sites such as Factually, www.gov.sg/factually. This website, set up in May 2012, is the government’s official online communication platform and repository which seeks to clarify common misperceptions of government policy, or inaccurate assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric. The community has also stepped up efforts to protect themselves against fake news. For example, a group of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) students created a “Sure Anot” campaign targeted at older Singaporeans aged between 50 and 64 to teach them how to conduct fact checks when they receive messages via WhatsApp.
To help the community better discern fake news and falsehoods, the National Library Board (NLB) rolled out the S.U.R.E information literacy campaign targeted at all Singaporeans in 2013. S.U.R.E stands for Source, Understand, Research, and Evaluate – the four concepts that an individual should keep in mind when assessing the reliability of news. NLB has since upgraded its S.U.R.E programme so that it is more targeted to the needs of the different segments of the population.
National Library Board (NLB)’s S.U.R.E. Campaign. Image: NLB.
Singapore has extremely high rates of internet penetration and social media use. We are an open and highly connected society and this connectivity that we rely on in our daily lives also makes us vulnerable to threats from the digital domain. Besides introducing new legislation and public education to protect ourselves against digital threats, individuals also have a critical role to play.
On 15 February 2019, Digital Defence was launched as the sixth pillar of Total Defence, bringing across the message that every individual is at the forefront of Digital Defence. As then-Senior Minister of State for Defence, Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman said during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate in 2019, “Only if everyone plays a part – the Government, businesses, communities and individuals - can we make Digital Defence a part of Singapore’s DNA, and keep our defence total.”
Digital Defence actions that every individual can take to protect themselves online. Image: MINDEF.