For businesses who care about their brands, Pofma may be not be such a bad idea after all.

Beyond Meat Inc. makes cows happy and cardiologists sad. Its Beyond Burger uses no meat and has no cholesterol, and contains less fat, fewer calories and more protein than a typical burger. Yet, in taste tests around the world, diners are astonished to discover that the plant-based sandwich offering is virtually indistinguishable – in flavour, texture and appearance – from the beef-based fare that they are familiar with.

The promise of this new-fangled product is reflected in the company’s recent IPO, which stunned market-watchers when its stock price almost tripled from US$25 (S$34) to a high of US$72 on the first trading day – enough to make cattle jump over the moon.

East meats West
Many believe that Beyond Burger and its ilk to be yet another Western innovation. We in the East know this to be fake news. Asians may be blasé about bogus burgers and make-believe meat, because many of us are vegetarian for ethical reasons. After all, for centuries the Chinese have been serving mock mutton, pretend pork, fake fish and deceptive duck. Made of wheat gluten, soya, agar and other plant-based ingredients, these are the result of the culinary creativity of Buddhist monks. In neighbouring India, vegetarianism has long taken root. An estimated half a billion Indians eschew meat, and chew tofu, cheese and lentils instead.

So it is not just fake news, it is old news. But because of Beyond Meat’s success, which has whetted appetites for further vegan-pleasing meat substitutes, meat producers are starting to take notice of the threat to their businesses and may be roused to stampede. Meat industry groups are lobbying to prevent such bogus burgers from being labelled with words such as “meat”, “beef” or “pork”. This recalls the US court cases that the dairy industry fought to prevent others from using “butter”, “margarine”, “yoghurt”, “milk” or even “soy milk” in their product names.

In Europe, a huge legal battle spanning half a decade was waged over the word “champagne”. The producers of the famous bubbly beverage, through their lobbyists, fought and lost their bid to stop a sorbet maker from using “champagne” to market its dessert. The European Court of Justice said that it was okay to do so because, well, the sorbet really did taste like champagne. One can only imagine the arduous tasting sessions that the members of the legal fraternity had to endure in their pursuit of justice. It is a sobering thought.

Can corporates weaponise Pofma?
The point is this: businesses fight disinformation and protect their brands by using tried-and-tested laws relating to intellectual property and unfair competition. Here in Singapore, though, we may have gained a new weapon in the legal arsenal.

After two days of marathon parliamentary debates, on 8 May lawmakers voted to pass the fake news law, or to use its official name, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. With typical Singaporean brevity, the law has been nicknamed “Pofma”.

So far, the focus has been on Pofma’s use in social and political situations. But here is an interesting question: can Pofma be used in a corporate context? Specifically, can listcos use Pofma to fight fake news?

Businesses live and die by their reputation. One of my clients manufactures a popular range of baby food in Asia. A wild rumour began circulating on Internet forums that its wares had been tampered with. Eventually, we tracked down the source of the falsehood to someone who had borne a grudge against my client. She had completely made up the allegation to get even. We shut down the fake news – but not before some parents had read it, and became upset and worried that their children would fall ill after consuming my client’s products.

With social media, gossip and scandal can go viral, harming brands, businesses and people. A short-seller targeting a particular company may spread its malicious analysis to sink the share price overnight, causing loss to investors for its own gain. If the disinformation is vicious enough, it can even destabilise the market.

Having analysed Pofma, here is how I think it can be used to fight hoaxes, innuendo and lies spread by unscrupulous competitors or traders to target a particular company.

A step-by-step guide
First, the business has to identify a false statement that has been put online.

Second, the business has to explain why that statement causes harm to the public. For example, the business can show that the false statement causes panic among consumers or investors.

Third, the business can then ask the authorities to order the false statement to be corrected or removed.

That is all it takes. It is faster and cheaper than the old way, where the business had to engage forensic experts, track down and identify the wrongdoer, serve legal papers on him/her/it wherever they are on the planet, go to court to argue to obtain an injunction, serve the injunction on the wrongdoer, and then have many, many follow-up hearings.

It may have been an unintended consequence, but Pofma could work as a tool for honest businesses to protect themselves against dishonest competitors and short-sellers. And that is enough for me to raise a glass of champagne sorbet.

A version of this article was published by the Business Times on 23 May 2019.

Written By – Adrian Tan