by Vincent Low
Right after Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered his Budget 2018 statement in Parliament on Monday (19 Feb), opposition politician Lim Tean put up a video to give his views with regard to the government's proposed budget for FY2018.
Mr Lim thought that the Budget "shirked responsibility" and did not do enough for the elderly. His online video went viral immediately but shortly thereafter, he was "logged out" from his Facebook page. He then discovered that neither his private page nor public one could be found by other Facebook users, suggesting that his account could have been deleted by Facebook altogether.
The Online Citizen (TOC) reported the incident in a news report and many netizens became angry with Facebook, accusing it of engaging in partisan politics in Singapore even though it's supposed to be a neutral US-based social media company.
Several hours later, Mr Lim's Facebook page was mysteriously restored without him doing anything. Likely, the news report from TOC may have triggered Facebook to restore his account.
Mr Lim later wrote, "I would like to thank TOC and all my friends and followers for bringing this FB issue to light and I have no doubt it was this exposure that restored my page to normal. I have also posted the video that seems to have been the catalyst for my FB elimination onto YouTube."
Disabling Lim Tean's FB page may not be the work of Facebook
It is unlikely that Facebook unilaterally disabled Mr Lim's account on its own.
An article on MSN news site explained, "Generally, Facebook doesn’t take down pages solely because of strongly opinionated political posts — Lim’s speech didn’t break any of the social media site’s Community Standards."
This is because according to Facebook's guidelines, accounts aren’t disabled until users have serious enough infractions such as impersonation, harassment, or continual abuse, which Mr Lim did not engage in.
"What might have happened is that Facebook could have experienced a deluge of users flagging his page for abusive content (because they disagree with Lim’s anti-government rhetoric)," the article further reasoned.
That being the case, one might ask, "Who are these users flagging Mr Lim's page as being abusive?" In what way was his content abusive and abusive to whom?
Signs point to PAP IB
In 2007, for the first time, news of the existence of an "Internet Brigade" belonging to the People's Action Party surfaced on Straits Times.
"The People's Action Party (PAP) is mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics. It has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously," ST reported.
At the time, sources told ST that the initiative was driven by two sub-committees of the PAP's 'new media' committee chaired by Minister Ng Eng Hen. Called the 'new media capabilities group', it executes strategies online to counter opposing views.
When contacted by ST, MP Baey Yam Keng confirmed the group's existence. It was necessary for the PAP to have a voice in cyberspace as there were few in the online community who were pro-establishment, he told ST then.
As such, the committees aim to "observe how new media is developing and see how we can use the new media as part of the overall media landscape", he added.
"How do we facilitate views that are pro-party and propagate them through the Internet?" he explained PAP's online strategy.
When asked about why the PAP activists remain anonymous online, Baey replied, "The identity is not important. It is the message that is important."
Going on the offensive
By 2012, it was reported that there were already "professional" administrators co-ordinating as many as 260 members, forming themselves in a super-secret group code-named "My Compass". Access to this by invitation-only group, is via recommendations of existing trusted members.
The secretive workings of this online group was exposed when it was infiltrated by an opposition supporter. The person revealed, "Upon receiving instructions by the administrators, unquestioning members spring into action to counter unfavourable chatter forming against PAP members or its linked entities."
"They operate in large numbers with the primary objective of drowning out negative comments and derailing the discussions on the internet," he said. "In addition, they also monitor Facebook activities of opposition parties, and call for reinforcements to help counter statements that are critical of the ruling party."
"On mundane days, typical actions including like-ing the FB pages of the PAP MPs to boast the popularity of MPs."
Some of their communications and actions were captured below by the opposition supporter:
"The PAP Internet Brigade gives an artificial impression that PAP members (especially MPs) are well-liked, and that PAP policies are well-loved by its citizens. More importantly, their actions are counter-productive to efforts by netizens to critically engage policy makers, and present an inaccurate picture of policy reception," he added.
So, if Mr Lim's Facebook account was deleted due to the aggressive predatory behaviour of those PAP IB members, it looks like the PAP is now doing more than just facilitating and propagating "views that are pro-party" like what MP Baey said. They are stopping people from reading alternative views altogether.
What do you think?