Singapore news is certainly more lively and interesting these days. This is in no doubt due to the proliferation of social media and internet news websites. With the influx of blogs, citizen journalism and the like, the speed and variety of content available has revolutionised the spread of information forever. In a country like Singapore whereby the mainstream media has been the only source of information for decades, this sudden relative ease of communication has been a breath of fresh air.
While it has been an overwhelming boon to our nation, there are some less positive side effects which we have to consider and mitigate. Many have written about the ill effects of how the internet has been misused to great harm, resulting in the propagation of ill will and intent. Anton Casey is but the latest offender in a long line of many that have caused insult and injury by their spurious comments.
I do not disagree that people should be circumspect with what they post online. There is a difference between a bona fide opinion which generates robust constructive debate and downright derogatory remarks that serve no further purpose apart from galling offense. The online community need to realise that while they may be sitting in their PJs in the privacy of their own homes, their comments are in the public domain once typed and posted. I believe that this is a teething problem which will right itself over time as people gain more awareness. What I would like to focus on however, is its twin issue – how we receive negative comments.
While much has been said about the offensive content in the public sphere, much less has been made about how we should receive such offending content.
From the government’s perspective, it has immediately moved to try and censor content it deems unsatisfactory by pushing out a slew of regulation to rein in the online community. A certain minister has even alluded to the fact that Singaporeans must be protected from the internet and be exposed only to the “right” sort of information. Whatever its intentions, this sends the message loud and clear – instead of reflection as to whether or not there is any merit in the content, let’s block it instead. I.e. out of sight, out of mind, if we don’t see the problem, it ain’t there. This sends a very defensive signal.
On a more day to day note, many of us have also reacted the same way towards content on the internet that we deem unsavoury. Very often, we read certain catch words and just react without thinking further. In many incidences, comments that have sparked outrage have been taken out of context and may even have been misinterpreted. I am not suggesting that this is true in every case but we do have to be more reflective as well. We cannot clamour for the right to free comment if we refuse to similarly accept free comment from others even if these are deemed as criticisms. Of course, this is not to say that outrageous and insolent remarks should be tolerated. All I am saying is that we should not jump the gun every time a certain catch phrase appears. There has to be a balance between the right to constructively criticise and insulting comments engineered to incite.
The latest casualty to the online onslaught is the World Hijab Day controversy. In a multi faith country like Singapore, I am appalled that there has been such blatant intolerance and ignorance. A campaign that is really meant to create awareness and foster understanding has now ceased operations as a result of what I hope is a minority of people who have chosen to misunderstand the intention of this movement.
On the flip side however, should the operators of the World Hijab Day have shut up shop? From what they have posted on their website, I infer that they have had to shut down due to government pressure and online harassment. While I do not know the full extent of the nature of the comments that have been made and my observations are not solely pertaining to the World Hijab Day. I just wonder if perhaps we are as a people, relatively new to free comment, a little too sensitive to perceived criticism?
The very nature of the internet means that there will always exist a group of people, trolls, as we call them, who will always disparage and pour scorn no matter what. Why should a worthy movement shut down because of such destructive ignoramuses?
While posters should learn to be circumspect, recipients of “bad” comments should also learn to take it in their stride. The two must go hand in hand in order for us to truly reap the benefits of the internet age.
The government has much to learn in this area but perhaps this is one instance where they can learn from us?
By overreacting to some online content, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. We not only lose the chance to reflect and better ourselves, we may also end up destroying worthy projects. Worse still, we may end up silencing meaningful comment and critics who may fear disproportionate reactions. Lest we forget, criticism in itself is not a negative thing. It is only where criticism is unfounded, baseless and calculated to divide that mischief is caused. We need to be able to differentiate the two.
By only focussing on what is deemed offensive, without also reflecting on how we react to criticism, we miss the forest for the trees.