“But in the past 10 years, no fewer than 16 people have been investigated either under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code for race- and religion-related offences” (When Social Media Turns Antisocial, The Straits Times Editorial).
Because the social media is oftentimes characterised as the “Wild Wild West” – where “a single individual is able to offend large numbers with careless abandon [with ease and speed]” (ST, Oct. 7), and where Internet mobs take it upon themselves to mete out justice through witch hunts, for instance – the corresponding abilities of users to respond positively have been ignored. Past practices in Singapore have shown that they are capable of countering these negative displays: calling out friends when inappropriate remarks are made, criticising unfounded counter-attacks without basis, as well as using reason to discuss socio-political issues related to race or religion.
And this community of users learns from experience, with a greater emphasis on media literacy too. The editorial suggests that there may be a correlation between more persons being investigated under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code for race- and religion-related offences and greater accessibility of online platforms, but it could also be a more active citizenry challenging longstanding boundaries or understanding constraints of the law, of which social media could be a contributory factor. What used to be a free-for-all environment is now shaped by past incidents and continuing interactions, and cognisant of the consequences for irresponsible speech – beyond the legal definitions – users fact-check or grow to be sceptical of misinformation.
Some have articulated the concept of a “neighbourhood watch“, through which users police one another as they grow familiar with the norms and boundaries online.
In fact these norms and boundaries – terms of engagement, in government parlance – are rewritten constantly. More get involved in these conversations. It may be true that online sharing platforms “magnify behaviour that is antisocial and divisive and multiply the effects of thoughtless comments based on differences of race, religion, and nationality”. Yet in this vein it should also be said that online sharing platforms have magnified behaviour that is social and constructive and has multiplied the effects of sensible comments, including those based on differences of race, religion, and nationality. Discourse on Chinese privilege, for example, has been enriching.
Mentions of these positives are hard to come by, which is a shame because they reflect a diversity of users who are check on one another in this “Wild Wild West”. Through active moderation and quality content, Singaporeans can be encouraged to not only leave their echo chambers, but also to watch what they say on the Internet. Over time, the most reasoned posts and personalities gain traction, drowning out the rabble-rousers and bigots. Learning how to navigate online spaces will have implications on media regulation, how the government uses platforms for feedback, and the continued empowerment of a civil society.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.