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Foreign interference in the digital age: what is it, and why should S’poreans be concerned?

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Foreign interference is an age-old phenomenon. Nations have attempted to interfere in one another’s politics for their own benefit since the dawn of history. 

The ultimate goal of foreign interference is to advance the interfering state’s national interests at the expense of the targeted state. 

Singapore is a neutral country and has made it clear that being aligned to any particular state is not in our national interests. 

Nevertheless, Singapore is not immune to foreign interference and the possibility of us becoming a target and being nudged towards a particular policy position or action cannot be ruled out. 

The threat of foreign interference is therefore very real, and has acquired greater urgency as advancements in technology allow for increasingly sophisticated online attacks. 

The Internet era has allowed countries to destabilise others without resorting to conventional warfare, through the use of hostile information campaigns. 

Singapore cannot afford to be complacent. As an independent state, Singapore’s survival, progress and destiny lies in the hands of Singaporeans. 

Our domestic policies and issues are for us to decide, and foreign interference threatens our right to decide how we want to run our country. 

Singapore has been a target of foreign interference

In February 2019, Mr Edwin Tong, the then-Senior Minister of State for Law, discussed the issue of foreign interference in Parliament. 

He cited the example of Huang Jing, who was expelled from Singapore after being identified as an agent of influence acting on behalf of a foreign country. 

Back in 2017, the professor used his position at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to advance the agenda of a foreign country. 

He had engaged with foreign intelligence operatives and recruited others, as he sought to influence the Singapore government’s foreign policy and public opinion in Singapore. His actions were classified by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as “subversion and foreign interference”.

Image Credit: Reuters

Mr Tong also referred to  the dispute with Malaysia over maritime and airspace issues in 2018 which made national headlines, and noted that there was a “curious” spike in online comments critical of Singapore that were made with anonymous accounts. 

“We do not know who these suspicious accounts belong to, nor do we know if they are being coordinated by foreign actors. But it is clear that these accounts have sought to give and create an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position, at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties,” said Mr Tong.  

These examples make it clear that Singapore has been the subject of foreign interference in the past, and there’s no reason why it cannot happen again. 

Navigating foreign interference in the online space

New communication tools are increasingly being used to conduct hostile information campaigns to sow discord along social fault lines and undermine trust in public institutions. With the intention of mobilising people against something rather than for something, such campaigns often seek to inflict economic, political and social damage. 

Such coordinated attempts are usually covert and aim to sow confusion, fray civic threads, and intensify existing polarisations, threatening our national security. 

In February 2019, Mr Tong also said that the fact that Singapore is an “open, democratic, digitally-connected, and diverse country” makes it particularly vulnerable to foreign interference. 

Image Credit: We Are Social

The rise of the Internet and social media has created a vast playing field for foreign interference, and industry regulation alone is not sufficient to curb it. 

In recent years, tech companies have stepped up to put in place initiatives to deal with certain forms of foreign interference.

Facebook, for instance, has rolled out a slew of measures aimed at thwarting foreign electoral interference in Singapore. 

One such measure calls for any person or organisation who wishes to run ads on either Facebook or Instagram relating to social issues, elections or politics in Singapore to confirm their identity — with documents such as a passport or identity card — as well as their location, to prove that they are based in the country. 

Twitter also announced last year that it would label or remove “false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic processes.”

This includes attempts to cause confusion about laws and regulations, unverified claims about election rigging and ballot tampering, and interfering with results. 

However, foreign interference has spread beyond social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. 

Foreign actors have also made use of online platforms like Parler and Gab, which are gaining popularity among political conservatives who claim their voices are being silenced by more mainstream social media giants. 

The key problem about platforms such as Parler and Gab is that they often have less stringent content moderation policies. Anyone’s free to post anything, which escalates the spread of misinformation and disinformation.  

Foreign interference is not just focused on elections 

The term ‘foreign interference’ has become a politicised buzzword in the years following the 2016 and 2020 US elections, with various nations accusing one another of interference. 

While Singapore’s general elections last year did not witness any foreign interference, there were many overseas elections that were affected by such attacks. 

For instance, during the 2017 French Presidential Election, Twitter bots were used to spread propaganda against Emmanuel Macron

Many of those bots had stopped tweeting after Trump won the 2016 US Elections, and only began tweeting again in the weeks ahead of the French elections to promote the “Macron Leaks”, an unverified hack of his campaign’s emails. 

Image Credit: Getty Images

Then during the 2020 US Presidential Election, online troll farms amplified controversial domestic issues and discredited the Democratic candidate. 

These campaigns employed tactics to evade detection, such as using private social media groups and message boards that were more difficult to monitor. 

However, not all hostile information campaigns are election-focused. 

Following the global spread of Covid-19 in 2020, a network of fake or hijacked social media accounts have targeted the US’ handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. There is also evidence suggesting that there’s a global disinformation campaign against vaccines

Many countries have learnt hard lessons and are taking action to expose and counter foreign interference. 

France, for instance, has set up an agency to fight foreign fake news that seeks to “undermine the state”. 

Australia has also passed several laws aimed at preventing foreign interference. Key provisions require lobbyists for foreign governments to identify themselves on a public register.

Singapore is no different, and have introduced a new law to deal with foreign interference. 

Singapore’s laws need to evolve to regulate foreign interference

There are many possible approaches to curb foreign interference, including enhancing the protection of election integrity, and educating society to discern between legitimate and artificial online discourse.

Another way is to strengthen our legal framework to combat foreign interference. 

Image Credit: Deposit Photos

In March 2019, Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs & Law, said that the government will strengthen and review laws to tackle foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics and threats. 

This will allow the government to tackle foreign interference attempts through targeted interventions, and to investigate and respond swiftly to hostile information campaigns.

It will also grant them the ability to obtain information in order to investigate the provenance of context, to see the extent to which it is foreign influenced and respond appropriately.

He added that the legislation to counter foreign interference needs to be able to deal with a diverse range of threats, such as the flow of funds, interference during and outside election periods, and foreign actors influencing domestic politics.

On 13 September 2021, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill was introduced in Parliament.

This will require Internet and social media service providers to disclose information required to determine if a hostile information campaign is afoot, remove the harmful online content, and block user accounts to counter hostile foreign actors. 

Individuals and groups directly involved in Singapore’s political processes will be defined as “Politically Significant Persons” (PSPs), and will be subjected to countermeasures to mitigate the risk of foreign interference. Defined PSPs include political parties, politicians, election candidates and their election agents. 

In addition, a competent authority, appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, can designate other individuals and groups 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. 

PSPs will be required to comply with a series of disclosure obligations aimed at ensuring transparency of their activities, such as the declaration of foreign affiliations and reporting single donations of S$10,000 or more from local and foreign donors. 

Should there be a heightened threat of foreign interference, stricter controls may be imposed on PSPs. This is to ensure that actors who are vulnerable to being compromised are free from foreign interference. 

“This Bill will strengthen our ability to counter foreign interference and ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives,” said MHA, stressing the need for our laws to evolve to tackle the threat. 

Although foreign interference is inevitable, we can definitely reduce its threat with this new legislation. 

This article was written in collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Featured Image Credit: yoycg via Envato Market

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