“It’s easy to be a backseat driver. It’s even easier to be a backseat driver when you’re not even in the same car.” As the producer of Star Wars episodes 1 to 3, Rick McCallum was surely no stranger to critics and certainly had his fair share of unsolicited advice from armchair pundits when he exclaimed the above. With the widespread penetration of the Internet into everyone’s’ lives through the ubiquitous smart phone, the Internet has become a pervasive vehicle for mouthing off or “trolling”.
(Featured Image: Dreams Time)
Activism Gone Awry
Speaking out used to be an activity fraught with danger. It used to be largely a face-to-face confrontation done personally and invariably was taken as such by some. Words and action weren’t so different then as those that did speak out were prepared to back their opinions up with solid arguments and action. Martin Luthur King, Daw Aung Sung and even our very own Mr. Lee Kuan Yew treated words with accountability, an association that is sadly, mostly absent on the Internet. These days, the divide that separates those who talk from those who do, have deepened into a chasm.
The Internet has enabled anyone with a QWERTY keypad to become an activist, a sedentary savant, a moping mouthpiece. Amongst the loudest vessels on the Web, are the young up-and-comers on the social media sphere that are finding their voices.
Local blogger Xiaxue and social media socialite, Jamie Chua, have both been featured in the local press for their online spats that have devolved into unceremonious name calling, shaming and airing of dirty linen. When celebrities take to social media to air their petty squabbles, it has been to garner support from their fans who will take sides and act as troops to launch online verbal attacks or engage in mud slinging.
Similarly, to capitalise on the proliferation of trolls (individuals who trawl the Internet to dish out critiques), Internet sites have been created to bring activities to public scrutiny in order to publicly shame or humiliate them. This mode of online vigilantism has emerged in the guise of traffic violation site, facebook.com/BehChiaLor and philanderer identification website, ShesaHomeWrecker.com.
“BehChiaLor”, uses Facebook and operates as a bulletin board where contributors post videos of errant motorists, complete with car plate numbers in an effort to discourage future similar behaviour, or more often, to vent their frustrations and soothe their bruised egos. “Shesahomewrecker” takes invasion of privacy a notch higher by allowing user submissions of photographs of their estranged ex-lovers, accompanied with lurid details of the breakup.
At the most abhorrent end of the spectrum is cyber-bullying, which is defined as causing harm to others by harassment through new digital media. This can manifest itself in malicious rumors or compromising photos being distributed online. As online social networks become as pervasive and valid as real ones, the results of cyber-bullying become increasingly distressing and perceptible to the victim.
These assaults by nameless, faceless masses are stressful, distressing and amount to outright bullying. By virtue of the global reach of the Internet, the bullying can reach a wider audience. The sheer scale of which can be overwhelming for the victim to comprehend or come to terms with. There is also discomfort arising from how long it will last and a lingering fear of when and where it can re-emerge. In this way, the victim is traumatised for a longer period and is assaulted incessantly, making the bullying harder to escape, as it is more pervasive.
The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
With its reach and accessibility, the digital word has the ability to initiate positive social change. Journalism has been dealt a leveling blow, and anyone can report from the ground, organise a protest or even topple a government, sometimes unintentionally. The domino effect of 2011’s Arab Spring underscores the wide reaching implications of the power of information, coordination and organisation made possible by the Internet. The latest Rohingya crisis was similarly sparked off by stories of an alleged rape that spread like wildfire online.
In Singapore, agitators like Amos Yee and The Real Singapore website have used their digital reach to make allegedly dissenting remarks and seditious comments. Their ability to be heard by the masses grants power to their voices. However, while operating behind a computer screen, it has been forgotten that with power comes responsibility and so, accountability goes out the window.
It can be seen as analogous to the free rider problem in economics, except in this case the public good is free speech and the cost is accountability for ones words. In the online world where thoughts can move at the speed of light, accountability comes in the form of being mindful of slander, defamation, sedition and inciting discord. Where that is absent, the government has to step in to make it known the true cost of free speech.
Free Speech is Not Free
With the advent of smart phones that keep us perpetually online, stores all our personal information and even enables online transactions, coupled with social accounts that define who we are, the fine line that existed between the virtual world and the real world has all but evaporated. An assault to our online personas is as damaging to our reputation as real world libel.
With the arrival of the Internet in 1994, the Internet Code of Practise was soon implemented, 2 years later. This brought the Internet under the same laws that prohibited “objectionable material” on all other traditional media outlets. These laws aimed to curb material that threatened public order, public security and national harmony, along with other material prohibited by applicable laws.
In 2012, the founders of the sociopolitical website, TR Emeritus, faced a defamation suit by the Lee family and eventually complied by removing the offending articles. In 2014, Blogger Roy Ngerng became the first blogger to be sued for defamation by a political leader over online comments. This definitively put the Internet within the purview of libel laws and set the precedence for future cases. In mid 2016, the Protection from Harassment Act was beefed up to include the growing occurrence of cyber-bullying.
These laws have gone a long way in regulating the activities on the Internet where, many feel emboldened to behave badly due to the perceived anonymity. Empowering the legal authorities to activate the resources to identify and hold perpetrators of irresponsible behavior accountable for their actions would essentially set the ground rules for a code of acceptable conduct in the largely free-for-all, wild west of the Internet.