Friday, 30 March 2012

Netizens quick to condemn offensive acts

Experts weigh in on letting Internet users police their own turf
By Kezia Toh & Miranda Yeo, The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2012

THE Internet may be a free-for-all space, but the online community can be quick to condemn bad behaviour when they spot it.

Mere minutes after a screenshot of Nanyang Polytechnic student Shimun Lai's racially offensive tweet was re-posted, there was a deluge of online comments chastising her.

The 21-year-old had made racist remarks on her Facebook and Twitter accounts that insulted Indians.

Netizens - the majority of whom were non-Indians - called her 'racist' and 'a disgrace' after a screenshot of the offending post went viral on Monday.

The comments came fast and furious after the screenshot was uploaded to forums such as and at around 10pm.

It did not matter that Ms Lai's posts were accessible only by her friends; one of them took a screenshot and circulated it.

On one Facebook thread following an article about the incident, 15 out of 25 disapproving posts were made by non-Indians.

'I think this means that racial delineations are becoming increasingly blurred, and opposition to discrimination is no longer strictly based on a desire to defend your own race. It's based on the realisation that we all deserve respect, and racial stigmatisation is no longer acceptable,' said student Lynette Lim, 18.

While some called for Ms Lai to be given a similar punishment as the one meted out to Chinese undergraduate scholarship holder Sun Xu, others asked her detractors to calm down, saying that she should be forgiven on account of her youth.

Mr Sun was fined by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and ordered to do community work for making offensive remarks about Singaporeans online.

The diverse views by netizens is clear evidence that the online community is regulating itself, said Dr Lim Sun Sun, associate professor of communications and new media at NUS.

And social pressure is present online too, just like elsewhere.

'Where there is social interaction, there will be social pressure - negative, positive and the entire spectrum of perspectives in between,' said Dr Lim.

Having netizens exert pressure, rather than a top-down approach from the authorities, could also help prevent unacceptable behaviour.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said: 'It is like having citizen 'policemen' - your peers ensure that you are on the right track and observe what we call 'netiquette'.'

Having someone of your own race lay on the pressure - Chinese Singaporeans formed the majority of those who chastised Ms Lai - also helps.

Dr Balhetchet said: 'Sometimes, the best way is to learn is from your own kind.'

The threshold for unacceptable behaviour seems lower in cyberspace, said Assistant Professor Giorgos Cheliotis from the NUS department of communications and new media.

'A lot of what we consider inappropriate or insensitive online is speech that would be quite normal in smaller social circles and tightly knit groups,' he said.

But a 'policing' community would not be necessary because official moderators can still intervene if offensive views are expressed, added Dr Lim.

If netizens want to join the online discussion, they should do so constructively, said Dr William Wan, general-secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

'The problem now is how to make sure netizens post comments that are mature, respectful and gracious,' he said.

Still, exerting social pressure does not get to the root of the problem - a person's beliefs.

Psychologist Daniel Koh from private practice Insights Mind Centre said: 'Social pressure does not cause a person to believe in something. It could just mean that he purely follows it because he fears the consequences.'

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