Whenever proposals for “regulation” or a “code of conduct” are mooted, members of Singapore’s Internet community – particularly the socio-political bloggers – will be up in arms. The G’s attempts to control the freedom of expression are unnecessary, they reckon, because Internet users are perfectly capable of countering harmful content. The G is too insecure. They point eagerly to the distasteful circulation of photographs following a tragic road accident involving two young boys, when the Internet community criticised those who shared the graphic images of the victims. Such an incident shows that the propagation of false information or irresponsible claims can be combated by the participants themselves.
Yet, what is often overlooked is the fact that the damage has been done. The boys’ parents had to cope with the sharing of the pictures. Many had viewed them on cyberspace. And, during the witch-hunt that ensued, accusations were lobbed against innocent foreigners. What then happens to the lives of those who have been directly affected?
Most agree that something has to be done to address these concerns, but identifying the “how” is much less straightforward. These perspectives were raised during the floor discussion of “To Share or Not to Share: Gains, Risks and Human Agency in Digital Information-Sharing”, a seminar organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). Held on July 17, 2013, there were 20 guests in attendance at Manasseh Meyer Building, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (and while I was honoured to be invited as a young blogger, I was in the company of “government officials, private and people sector leaders, and academics”).
What Then, If Not (Co-)Regulation?
Dr. Carol Soon, moderator and organiser, laid out the scope of the seminar concisely. Peer-to-peer communication and digital information-sharing have created richer online discourse, but they come at a cost. The convenient dissemination of baseless or hurtful publications can render people susceptible to undeserved attacks, harassment, and bullying. It is hard to hold perpetrators accountable. Consequently, the Research Fellow from IPS questions, “should boundaries be drawn for digital information-sharing”, and “other than regulation, are there other solutions which can alleviate the negative effects of digital information-sharing”?
Many would be familiar with the arguments advanced by the opponents of these “boundaries” and “regulation”, who contend that the Internet is a medium, not an affiliation or an institution. Any control is unlikely to cover all grounds or completely deter negligent behaviour, and the actual enforcement will be a challenge. Presently, as Miss Teo Yi-Ling, Director of Gateway Law Corporation shared, the law in Singapore does provide some form of recourse, but it only kicks in when there is harm. This harm can come in the form of harassment, defamation (libel and slander), or breaches of confidentiality.
However, the practising lawyer added, the nature of the Internet means that the genesis of these posts could be hard to ascertain, and compensation might not be adequate. If the law can only do so much, then what other options are available?
For one, if we see the Internet as a medium upon which a socio-political community exists, then could this loose collection of writers and sites be managed? If an Internet code of conduct is going to be near-impossible to enforce, could we then consider an honour code instead, as an attempt at co-regulation? This will only happen, Miss Teo explains, “if there is volition on the part of the most active bloggers, the most active commentary websites, to actually say … we will subscribe to it”. The well-intentioned honour code has to be something the Internet community agree to, and something that will be upheld.
The problem is, who will define the “active” players, and by what measure? Length of writing experience? Number of unique visitors to the websites? Democratic polls conducted among the readers of these commentaries? Furthermore, even if these big players do cobble together an honour code of sorts, adherence is no guarantee.
The key, it would appear, is for readers and writers to assume greater responsibility, thereby reducing the incentives for the creation of blatant falsehoods or sensationalist narratives.
Media Literacy Implications
For a writer, responsibility means belief in the adage: “opinions are cheap, facts are sacred”. He or she must exercise due diligence when reporting for events, and not fabricate – or reproduce without permission – the perspectives of others. Peddling in speculation or untruths is unacceptable, because the credibility of a rigorous writer can only be built up over time. And amidst the self-indulgent penning of articles, the online blogger must remember that he or she is but one viewpoint, expressing it through a single platform. Conversations and discourse do exist and flourish beyond this platform – as they should.
This online responsibility does not stop with the (re)production of news and information. Privacy concerns are equally important. Associate Professor Jack Jiang from the National University of Singapore has sought to understand the privacy protection behaviour of Internet users. There is an inconsistency, he says. While “there are worries over privacy, there is a willingness to disclose substantial private information in synchronous online social interactions”. Synchronous means instantaneous, and therefore individuals – beyond an awareness of the risks involved – should engage actively in privacy-protection behaviour.
And while buzz-phrases like “digital engagement” and “bottom-up involvement” were raised to explore the plausibility of citizen-based governance using Internet tools, there were no fruitful conversations on media literacy programmes. Because if we accept the proposition that online content producers and consumers should be more accountable for their writing and reading habits, it would follow that media literacy programmes would have to match these expectations. Associate Professor Natalie Pang from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) highlighted the City of Boston’s “Citizen’s Connect”, a channel that allows residents to report problems that they see around their neighbourhoods.
Still, the effectiveness of such tools depends on the self-restraint exercised by the users: to not intrude upon private spaces, to not take advantage of situations, to use the resource constructively. The Assistant Professor in NTU’s Division of Information Studies did mention that she would explore “how media literacy may need to be understood differently in various societal contexts” and “the factors and conditions that shape media literacy in Singapore”, but these were areas that the seminar should have covered in greater detail.
We can advocate for a maintenance of the status quo, because we – supposedly – have faith in the good folks of the Internet who will stand up against transgressions. Unfortunately, such wishful thinking will not combat the temptations for many to sensationalise, to get eyeballs by any means possible. It has also become very easy, almost instinctive, to share stuff without evaluating the veracity of sources, or the consequences of our online actions. Since efforts at regulation are doomed to fail, we must strengthen our media literacy. To manage our privacy and online activities intelligently; to appreciate the messy diversity the Internet offers; as well as to educate our young ones to write and read the right things.
And it has to start now. Right now.