“In a Facebook post last Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he had received complaints about “Heather Chua”, and was glad the Singapore Police Force had established the identity of the man believed to be behind the fictitious profile” (Another Under Probe for Racist Remarks on Internet, Mr. Lim Yan Liang and Mr. David Ee).
That the government has taken strong action against two individuals for making a series of racist remarks on Facebook and Twitter should come as no surprise (Another Under Probe for Racist Remarks on Internet, Jan. 12), but one has to wonder how the Internet community can move beyond this reliance upon punitive measures against other forms of hate or corrosive speech. At the moment when there is something amiss on the Internet, there appears to be a predilection for reporting the matter to the politicians. The government on the other hand seems keen to clamp down on these offensive posts, even if the might not be as clear-cut as the aforementioned. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even took the time to respond to these complaints, remarking that “[we] must uphold our racial harmony and social cohesion”.
Already there is growing intolerance for misinformation, disinformation, as well as cyber-bullying, and new regulations should be expected in this new year.
Legislation might be effective against derogatory discourse surrounding race and religion, but should we rely pedantically on the law per se for deterrence? The government has adopted a combative stance, with the PM stating that Internet trolls should be fought against. In this vein the National Library Board’s S.U.R.E campaign is well-intentioned, and could be complementary to existing strategies. Corny acronyms aside, the initiative equips students with the know-how to process virtual content. Progressively, they will develop the maturity to “cut through the information clutter”, and consume news and information intelligently.
This fosters stronger responsibilities more sustainably.
But how do we encourage further, constructive self-censorship and community cooperation? Media literacy programmes in schools should move beyond convenient dichotomies – of absolutes rights and wrongs – to help young users make sense of a messy digital environment. They should also learn how to discern between fact and fiction, to be more sceptical and rigorous. Prominent community websites can promote best practices, and at the same time allow themselves to be moderated and policed by their own readers. If given the time and space to grow organically, these networks would be capable of crowding out needlessly derogatory publications, and maintain a safe environment for discourse.
So the next time someone pulls a ludicrous “Heather Chua” or “Clarena Clanen TzeYi” to perpetuate hate speech, the first instinct will not be to sensationalise or report to the PM, but to correct, disengage appropriately, and move away if need be. To – for instance – not give these transgressors the attention they so crave.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.