From Poland to Singapore: How Nicolaus Copernicus Inspired POFMA

I was in the midst of writing another post in an attempt to clarify many misconceptions people express in online comments about the application of Singapore's anti fake news law when it dawned on me that there was one enormously more popular Pole who came up with a concept perfectly explaining our modern predicament with falsehoods and their damaging impact. The very same who debunked one of the biggest myths in our history and proved that Earth indeed revolved around the Sun - Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus is of course most known as an astronomer but in reality he was another of the renaissance era polymaths, a contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci, a church canon, mathematician and economist.

So what does any of it have to do with fake news circulated on 21st century Facebook and Twitter?

Well, there is a principle in economics known as Gresham's Law, which states that "bad money drives out good money".

The theory explains that in a reality where you have good money (e.g. a gold coin whose face value equals the value of the precious metal it's made of) and bad money (when the coin has been artificially debased, e.g. by having gold or silver chipped away or blended with less valuable metals), the bad money will eventually dominate circulation, because people will be inclined to keep the good coins for themselves, and pay with the fraudulent ones whenever they can. Why pay more if you can get away with paying less?

Curiously, the theory was actually first formulated by... Copernicus in 1526 (when Gresham was just a small child), as a part of his work on recommendations for the monetary reform in Royal Prussia (under Polish rule at the time) - which is also why the theory itself is quite frequently labeled as Gresham-Copernicus law.

(In his works Copernicus was also the first to formulate the quantity theory of money, describing the relationship between the amount of money in circulation and price inflation - laying foundations i.a. for monetary policies that modern central banks are responsible for.)

Interestingly, the very same rules that apply to substandard money work for substandard information - i.e. fake news. Much like bad currency eventually drives out the good one, misleading falsehoods drive out the truth from circulation.

The reason for it is that truth only really has one form but lies can be designed to be more attractive to the public - so their popularity is often greater. By "chipping away" important details, modern day information frauds can create any number of stories that enjoy higher following than plain facts.

This effect is further compounded by the fact that, unlike money, information does not have to take a physical form, so it can be multiplied and manipulated quite effortlessly on an enormous scale. Anybody with internet access can simply "mint" his own stories and distribute them with very few obstacles.

As a result the truth gets lost in a sea of lies, produced daily to advance interests of their peddlers.

Considering that most of the developed world is democratic, the quality of information that people base their political decisions on is of critical importance. And so we must tackle falsehoods with the same dedication we crack down on counterfeit money - or else we're going to end up with frauds in charge of our lives.

And so here we arrive at Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act - POFMA - a first in the developed world, aimed at tackling the issue.

Copernicus' observations from half a millennium ago explain not only the necessity for such a law but also how it should be implemented - which is why POFMA works the way it does.

Crucially, in his reform recommendations penned for Prussia in 1526 he suggested there is only one mint responsible for minting new coins. Now, in our media analogy it means that the government sets certain uniform standards for reporting of factual information and serves the role of a body performing quality controls whenever a substandard piece is published.

Hence its role as the arbiter that has the right to clarify every publication that is qualified as misleading.

Of course, much like you can't trace every fraudulent coin you can't follow and correct every single piece of misleading information. But what you can do is make sure that the sources are following defined quality standards - which is why the government is responsible for them, while being held accountable in court should it ever choose to overstep its own laws.

The goal is to reduce incidence of lies in circulation - especially about the affairs most important to the nation - ensuring that everybody has easier access to all information in every particular case, to make their own decisions - much like we make our purchasing choices using a standard form of currency we know the value of.

Misconceptions About POFMA Explained

General reactions to implementation of POFMA are pretty much what all of us could have expected - everybody is trying to justify why they were right all along. Though, quite objectively speaking, its detractors have a much harder job of justifying their earlier fears of overbearing censorship, since not one thing has actually been censored (it's not an opinion, it's a fact).

Denialism is quite a well described phenomenon, much like general human propensity to protect one's ego from unpleasant truths. On this basis many people are not only refusing to budge from their own stance but have also made erroneous observations about how the law works and what is meant to achieve.

So I thought it would be good to publish a summary of these misjudgments, and perhaps allow others, less entrenched in their views, to understand the situation more clearly.

Claim no. 1. POFMA is a political tool designed to attack opposition parties ahead of the GE.

Of course the law is very much political, in the sense that every shred of misleading information may ultimately impact public opinion and motivate people to make different political choices or voice different political demands.

Another obvious thing is that you will see it used near exclusively against opposition parties and their politicians or sympathizing media outlets. Why? Because anybody sympathetic to the government (or a non-partisan commentator) would simply take down the misleading piece.

Quite ironically, then, the way POFMA was designed allows opposition politicians to keep their offending statements in public view instead of compelling them to remove them completely. I.e. they may stand their ground and offer counter-arguments.

Claim no. 2. The law already proves useless because exchanging accusations creates confusion, while opposition supporters are unlikely to change their views - or may even exhibit stronger support for their parties.

The goal of POFMA was clearly not to change anybody's mind. As I explained above, due to our psychological propensities, most people are generally unwilling or even unable to change their views. So, declared opposition supporters will see POFMA as an attack on their camp, regardless of demonstrably false claims their leaders are making.

The role of the law is to provide a correction - there and then - for everybody to see the full picture, including factual argumentation provided by the government.

Why? To avoid misleading less engaged readers who may see the offending - and misleading - content circulated as the truth when it isn't one. So before they accept it or decide to share it further, they are provided enough clarifying information to make a sound judgment. Much like the government makes sure your money is genuine and holds value - even if you don't know the whole process behind it - its role here is to make sure information you receive presents the fullest picture possible.

Claim no. 3. The government should exhibit restraint in using the law, instead of invoking it every time some activist or politician makes a dubious statement.

The law is applicable to all cases when false information may harm public interest. The reason for it is very simple - any misleading claim made by any person with considerable reach and social/political standing is harmful in the long run.

Societies do not collapse because someone made one egregious lie but because duplicitous populists made hundreds of seemingly small lies that gradually eroded and swayed the public opinion. Which is why correcting all or most of them is equally important.

Plus, I don't really see how the cases in which the law has been used are really minuscule.

Disseminating lies about how the nation's reserves are managed via GIC and Temasek - including funds from CPF (backed by special government bonds, proceeds from which are then managed by the GIC) - is not only a questionable political practice but ultimately undermines the trust of people in their own country.

The same can be said about the job market, where perpetuating false information about the role of migrants in the local economy can have absolutely catastrophic long term consequences.

Singapore is an ageing society, devoid of any natural resources and its greatest strength is not only in producing but also attracting top human capital (i.e. people) from abroad to reside and work here.

An enormous damage has already been done by similar caterwauling in the past, leading the government to tighten immigration laws in response to changing public sentiments - a change which was in no small part caused by unfounded claims about the impact of immigrants on the country (quite ironic in a place built by and nearly entirely inhabited by descendants of economic migrants).

The same tactics have already wreaked havoc in the West, leading to the rise of highly populist right wing and fracturing long-standing and beneficial international agreements in the name of blind, entitled nationalism.

Larger economies like the British one - whose population was duped into supporting Brexit - can survive this without major disasters (at least in the short term) but a small city-state like Singapore, thriving on business openness and its role as a nexus for capital and people from all corners of the world, would be hurt very badly if such misleading claims keep being promoted without challenge.

To sum it up - the role of POFMA is not to turn all people into PAP-loving government supporters or to censor and bully local opposition parties.

After all, any influencer affected can take the case to court if he feels the facts are truly with him. Political parties surely have the means to do it.

The only thing that the law really does is it guarantees that the government has the right to provide clarification next to any misleading statement that it can prove is false and deems it harmful to the public interest (i.e. the entire country), so that everybody who reads it has at least a chance to see the full picture.

The final judgment is still up to you.