Monday 9 December 2013

Raising the tone of online debate

To deter trolls and encourage better discourse, the Government's online feedback arm, REACH, will require posters to register. Insight looks at the ramifications.
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2013

GOING online after work for some relaxing cyber-engagement can turn into a trial for lawyer Yeoh Lian Chuan.

Mr Yeoh enjoys posting comments on local sites but sometimes this unleashes vicious replies from others.

He has been called a bunch of nasty names and wrongly accused of being paid to post his views.

Ironically, he uses his real name to post, unlike the name- callers who hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Yet Mr Yeoh, 44, is unfazed. To adapt to the fast and increasingly furious world of the Internet, he simply makes sure he posts sparingly on forums dominated by those out to upset or anger others.

"I only post if I feel strongly. If I post a lot, I'll invite a lot of trolls," he says, using the Internet slang for such people.

Trolling - and how to deal with it - came under the spotlight two weeks ago when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rallied Singaporeans to fight back against this problem. Trolls can ruin the tone of online discussions and deter serious participants.

The fightback will start with the Government's feedback arm, REACH. From Thursday, a user will have to log in with his Facebook account in order to post on REACH's online forum. Before, no such registration was required.

This will widen the space for constructive discourse for Singaporeans, as PM Lee put it.

However, while its reach may be limited - REACH admits to having on average just "over 2,000 feedback inputs" a month - the move is seen by some as yet another step by the authorities to rein in speech in cyberspace.

It also raises issues of whether other Singapore sites will follow suit, if this will reduce online participation or drive traffic elsewhere, and whether people's privacy will be compromised. Insight logs into the issue.

Real names, other solutions

WEBSITES around the world are dealing with the issue of trolls in a range of ways.

The extreme reaction by some is to ban comments altogether. Science and technology news website Popular Science did so, saying discussion of topics from climate change to evolution had become too polarised.

A more moderate approach has been to require some identification to provide accountability. This includes having to register for an account with the site (news blog The Huffington Post), or having to log in with a social media account like Facebook (sports site and Google+ (Google's video channel YouTube).

In Singapore, other sites have been urged to follow REACH's lead. These would be "responsible, respectable sites which recognise that sensible, hard, tough discussion can take place", said Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam at a forum last week.

While Mr Shanmugam and other political leaders have not specified which Singapore sites or online forums could follow REACH's approach, one indicator is the 10 news websites that fall under June's licensing regime changes.

Such sites come under the licensing law umbrella if they have a significant reach, attracting at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore in a month; they are also required to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified, and put up a performance bond of $50,000.

The 10 sites comprise seven Singapore Press Holdings sites such as; two at MediaCorp, and Yahoo Singapore.

Sociopolitical blog The Online Citizen is not on the list, although in 2011 it became the first website to be gazetted as a political association, with requirements to declare donations.

Separately, two websites - The Independent and Breakfast Network - have been asked in recent months to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, which prohibits them from accepting foreign funds.

While some of these sites do require Facebook log-ins to post comments, others allow posters to be anonymous or not use their real names.

Research in the United States makes a case for removing total anonymity in order to tackle trolling, says Professor Tan Cheng Han, chairman of the government-appointed Media Literacy Council.

Earlier this year, the University of Houston found that 53 per cent of comments on sites that allowed anonymous posts were what it termed "uncivil", nearly double the 29 per cent for those that insisted on real names or Facebook comments.

Problems with requiring ID

BUT requiring identification raises several problems. One concern is that being stricter on identifying commentators could drive users to other sites that are more lax.

Another is that people who would in fact add to the discourse may be put off posting if they cannot do so anonymously.

On the ramifications of being stricter about identifying posters, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez says: "ST websites already require that you give your name and e-mail before you can post a comment. Of course, some might use a pseudonym.

"We are considering whether to raise the bar and require a slightly more detailed registration process, as some other reputable news sites have done.

"Yes, this might deter some people from airing their views. But we also know that many people are put off by trolls, and so chose not to join in the discussion. That's unfortunate, as we do want them to feel free to speak their minds, and for our sites to be places for meaningful discussions.

"We are now gathering feedback from our readers and will decide on how best to proceed when we are ready."

One overarching problem is that of safeguarding privacy in a world of hackers and stalkers.

This means better security on the part of sites that hold the information, and greater savviness of users about the information they make available online.

A related issue is that of people dropping out of commenting because they do not want to risk being identified, perhaps because they still have business dealings with civil servants they are criticising, or they fear losing their jobs if they fault their employer.

Also, communication experts such as Singapore Internet Research Centre director Ang Peng Hwa note that people posting without anonymity might risk the ramifications of being misunderstood, in a high-context Asian culture where people tend to read more into what is left unsaid.

Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Carol Soon notes, too, that "anonymity may embolden others, who for different reasons do not want to be identified, to speak up against objectionable behaviour".

Additionally, sites abroad that have put in place tougher identification policies report an initial drop in the number of comments., the website of a journalism institute in Florida, reported as saying that when it tried out adding Facebook commenting to a baseball section of its sports website, the volume of comments dropped by a quarter. But the civility of the comments greatly improved, with fewer flagged as inappropriate.

The site also saw growth in the number of users extending the conversation into Facebook, creating "a halo effect of bringing traffic back to our site", an EPSN spokesman said.

Indeed, there are other unexpected pluses. An added benefit of driving trolls away by requiring identification is that there will be less need for a posse of dedicated and adroit moderators to sift through offensive comments, either before they are posted or after readers have flagged them.

The resources could be better spent on improving reader experience online, engaging them and building community.

For REACH's small team of moderators, this would be a plus. Its chairman Amy Khor, who expects an initial drop in comments as people get used to its new log-in policy, is optimistic that more people will join in when they see its online forum as a safe harbour for robust discussions.


AMID all this, a larger concern among some netizens is whether the Government, in the wake of the REACH move and its call for other responsible sites to follow suit, is signalling that it will be clamping down on political discourse in cyberspace.

The political context matters in Singapore's case because of recent changes such as June's licensing regime changes for news websites and other announcements.

The Attorney-General's Chambers is charging blogger Alex Au with contempt of court, for an article he wrote on his blog, Yawning Bread, which the AGC said "contains allegations of wrongdoing by senior judicial officials".

Political leaders reject suggestions of a clampdown, saying, for example, that Reach's move does not foreshadow a law to make everyone register; that the Government has always had the legal power to demand the removal of posts; and that only the $50,000 bond that news websites have to put up is new.

MP Baey Yam Keng has reckoned that the problem may be more one of how measures are signalled by the Government, and netizens' subsequent perceptions of its intent.

He also suggested that an underlying concern of political leaders is to tilt online discussion away from what they perceive as an anti-establishment bias to one that is more balanced.

It is not just to make the online space friendlier for people, but also that "those who want to say good things about the Government will feel comfortable enough to say so", he has noted.

It will be a tough balancing act for officials who want to receive honest feedback, promote their position and also deal with criticism - unfounded or not.

Dr Soon notes that critical but unbalanced opinions still need to surface, as they may shed light on people's concerns and doubts.

She says: "Views and opinions occupy a wide spectrum, and the same can be said for critical comments. Some are more objective and others seemingly one-sided, but can be insightful nonetheless.

"But a line must be drawn and action taken when there is incitement to hurt, a clear breach of a civil right or criminality involved."

Associate Professor David Tan, who teaches a course on freedom of speech at National University of Singapore's law faculty, notes that netizens cannot claim an absolute right to freedom of speech on the Internet and express their opinions with impunity, but also cautions about the Government's actions on this aspect.

He says: "The ongoing and unenviable challenge for the Government is to find the right balance between encouraging active political participation and chilling citizen engagement in the political process."

Some observers argue the Government must be more confident that it can win people over by the merit of its arguments and resort less to measures that could have a chilling effect on political discourse. This will set the political climate for people to participate in online discussion.

The Media Literacy Council's Prof Tan says: "Certainly there are those who view that anonymity can promote free and open exchanges. But it can also be abused.

"Each society will have to decide for itself where and how to draw that balance. Governments also have a role in setting the right tone through their responses to their critics."

The importance of the issue can be seen in research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which suggests that those who read online discussions with "uncivil" language tend to judge the issue based on their pre-existing values rather than the objective information at hand.

"This could lead to polarised perceptions on issues among different audience segments which hold different values," Prof Tan says.

That is cause for concern for governments like Singapore's that place a premium on harmony in a multiracial and multi-religious society, among other things.

Educating the community

ANOTHER concern is the effectiveness of identification measures. Take Facebook log-ins. Some simply might set up bogus accounts.

Duplicate or non-human accounts (such as pets or brands) reportedly make up as much as 10 per cent of all Facebook accounts.

A more sustainable way forward, given how quickly technology changes, is to build a community of users who are savvy online and hold others to responsible behaviour.

As communications professor Jude Yew of NUS sees it, "the trolling problem is essentially a problem with the design of discussion spaces", an area, he says, in which Singapore sites lag behind others abroad.

He cites two websites with anonymous contributors that are viewed as successful discussion spaces: Stackoverflow, where individuals can ask for help on programming problems; and reddit, where individuals can post news items and links of interest.

He says: "Some of the interesting and successful features of these discussion sites include cultivating an active community that both moderates discussion and mentors newcomers, voting up posts viewed as meaningful and hiding posts that are not.

"What I find lacking on many Singapore discussion or comment spaces is the cultivation of an invested and accountable community that is willing to moderate its own discussions."

Dr Soon suggests a more sustainable approach of giving people the skills to navigate the online space.

"People have the power to ignore, speak up, report and if necessary, leave (the group) when they encounter offensive material," he says.

Indeed, much online discussion in groups takes place outside of forums, such as among friends on social media platforms, but which could have a wider impact than mere coffeeshop talk.

Manager Firdaus Abdul Samad, 37, recently took part in a discussion on his friend's Facebook page about the debate over Malay women not being able to wear the tudung or headscarf at some places of work.

"I said there's no point to swear at each other and say vulgarities; you must take it positively and be more mannered in your comments. It's about adab," he says, referring to the Islamic term for etiquette and code of conduct.

Whatever the solution to trolling and encouraging constructive online discussions may be in Singapore, it is especially important to the nation, given its unique society.

Indeed, in an interview on Tuesday with SPH print media including The Straits Times, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said: "We do not want more pro-establishment views. We want more honest views. And people must be responsible for the views that they give."

Few would disagree with that.

Research in the United States makes a case for removing total anonymity in order to tackle trolling, says Professor Tan Cheng Han, chairman of the government-appointed Media Literacy Council.


1. Trolls want people to get emotional, so stay rational.

2. If you see insensitive or aggressive posts, alert the administrator. If trolls try to digress, ignore them and steer the conversation back.

3. If you see tactics that endanger others, keep your replies succinct and unemotional. Contact the site administrator to have the post removed.

Trolling can be harmless or downright malicious
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2013

IF BLOGGER Aaron Loy were to troll others, it would "probably be to get a point across, like being sarcastic, or because it will be funny".

The 28-year-old, who visits various forums and live chats, makes it clear that he has yet to troll anyone - but would be up for such pranking if it did not cause injury or death.

It will be "amusing to troll people who are really dense or thick in the head", said the marketer.

On local online forums, trolling - provoking and antagonising others - comes in many forms.

At one end of the spectrum is pranking with no serious malicious intent, such as mischievous mocking or insulting. Some post annoyingly outrageous or untrue comments.

"I have not brushed my teeth since the day I moved into hall, a day before matriculation," an anonymous netizen, claiming to be a female Nanyang Technological University student, recently "confessed" on Facebook.

"It feels so liberating and happy. Of course I fake my roomie by bringing my toothbrush to the toilet. I just don't use it," went the post.

These trolls are just bored, said communications researcher Claire Hardaker in a piece in British newspaper The Guardian.

For them, trolling is a good way of killing time. They tell tall tales because they crave and enjoy attention, whether positive or negative.

But other trolls are meaner and more aggressive. Some insult, and are deliberately insensitive on topics such as religion.

Government feedback arm Reach said that on its online forum, there have been cases of users resorting to name-calling - "snake", "liar", "terrorist", "bigot", "treasoner" and "coward" - when they disagreed with others. This led to personal attacks which derailed conversations.

Mr Loy said these individuals may not be pranksters per se, but people unable to properly articulate their thoughts in a discussion.

"These characters are the same people you'll find in real life - the one who can only think from his point of view, the one who does not listen to reason, the one who mixes his frustrations about something else into the argument," he said.

Dr Hardaker noted that trolling can also come from feeling disenfranchised and powerless, due to being unable to get a job or buy a house, for example.

These trolls drag others down to their level of misery so that "they won't feel quite so bad about themselves", she added.

But trolls usually form the minority in a "regular" community, said new media watcher Carol Soon of the Institute of Policy Studies, except for those on sites which promote sensational material or discrimination against certain groups.

On REACH, for example, 8 per cent of the 2,000 "feedback inputs" it averages a month are trolling comments.

"The site and its users set the norms for acceptable and unacceptable behaviours," Dr Soon said.

How registration has fared elsewhere
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2013

IMPLEMENTING real-name registration laws is touted as one way to raise the standard of online debate, but the experiences of South Korea and China show that this comes with problems.

South Korea is believed to be the first country to introduce such a law, after the suicide of popular actress Choi Jin Sil, 39, who had become a target of cyber bullying.

Online gossips alleged that she was a loan shark who had hounded another star to commit suicide over a debt. They also harangued her over her bitter divorce and for being a single mother of two.

When she was found dead in her apartment in late 2008, it ignited a national debate over cyber bullying.

That ended in politicians passing a law which required netizens to disclose their real names when signing up for websites with more than 100,000 visitors a day.

To confirm their identities, users had to submit their national identification numbers, which are assigned to Korean citizens at birth.

But last year, South Korea's constitutional court overturned the law on the grounds that it restricted individuals' right to free speech.

The lack of anonymity discouraged people from criticising influential groups for fear of reprisal, said the court.

The law had not had its intended effect either, the court noted, as the amount of negative content online did not drop significantly after it was introduced.

A study by the country's national media regulations agency found that malicious comments had fallen by only 0.9 of a percentage point a year after the rule went into force.

The reversal also came amid fears over identity theft: In 2011, hackers reportedly stole the personal data that

35 million users - 70 per cent of the country's population - had used to sign up to websites.

The data included their real names, mobile phone numbers and national identification numbers.

While South Korea discarded its law, China in the same year went ahead with its own real-name registration system.

Microblogging platforms such as Sina Weibo had to ensure that their users registered for accounts with the name on their government-issued identification card.

This was ostensibly to combat online rumours about the official abuse of power in the wake of disgraced politician Bo Xilai's scandal.

But implementation has been patchy at best so far. Sites have said that verifying identification details is a huge task, given that their accounts can number more than 600 million.

REACH's anti-trolling move: Postings 'may dip, then rise'
Safe online forum will spur participation: Amy Khor
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2013

THE Government's feedback arm, REACH, expects fewer online comments initially when a new rule kicks in on Thursday, requiring people to log in first with their Facebook accounts.

But it is hopeful that, eventually, more people will give their views, its chairman Amy Khor told The Straits Times. "Over time, as users recognise that we provide a safe online forum for robust, open and healthy conversations on national issues and that we do not curtail any views, we think more will come to join the discussion," said Dr Khor, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower.

Her remarks on the possible impact of its new policy come two weeks after the move was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a speech urging Singaporeans to fight back against the global phenomenon of trolling, in which people post offensive or provocative messages to upset or anger others.

Blaming online anonymity for encouraging trolling, Mr Lee called on other websites that desire constructive discussions to follow in Reach's footsteps.

Overseas sites, like sports channel, that introduced some form of identification saw a drop in comments, but reported greater civility in discourse.

The REACH forum currently has a registration system, but most contributors choose to be anonymous, said its spokesman.

Trolling comments on its online forum make up 8 per cent of the more than 2,000 comments it receives on average every month.

These typically are from anonymous users who make inflammatory remarks and hurl names such as "snake" and "bigot" at those whom they disagree with. As a result, serious discussions are disrupted and deteriorate into personal attacks, said the spokesman.

Others made off-topic remarks in serious discussion threads. These included postings on a sex case in a discussion about Singapore's economic growth, and anti-casino comments in population and manpower discussion threads, she added.

The Facebook log-in gives some degree of user authentication and instils a sense of social responsibility, she said.

"It is never our intention to curtail freedom of expression or restrict alternative views. But as the REACH discussion forum is a public online space for Singaporeans to give feedback and views on government policies and national issues, it is important that REACH provides a safe environment where healthy and constructive discourse can take place."

With the change, she added, the time spent weeding out trolls can be put to "engaging contributors who are willing to be identified with their views".

National University of Singapore Students' Union president Soh Yi Da, 24, supports the new REACH policy. It is not just to fight trolling, but more so that it allows him to know the background and context of the person posting a comment, said the political science undergraduate.

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