Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Online vigilantes going too far?

Two recent cases expose the ugly side of online behaviour in Singapore
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Sunday Times, 9 Feb 2014

Singapore's Internet community ought to police itself better if it wants to safeguard its freedom online and not invite the authorities to step in and stop atrocious behaviour, new media experts say.

Two recent cases have exposed the ugly side of Singapore netizens in the way they have pursued and attacked individuals they decided deserved to be punished.

Last month, Briton Anton Casey found himself at the receiving end after posting disparaging remarks about "poor people" on the MRT and having to "wash the stench of public transport" off himself.

Most agreed that what he did was offensive, but the online attacks targeted him, his former beauty queen wife and their young son. Mr Casey took his family to Perth, claiming they had received death threats. He then lost his job as a senior wealth manager after he and his employer "parted ways" in the wake of the controversy.

Last week, 24-year-old undergraduate Quek Zhen Hao found himself the overnight focus of attention, after two videos - showing him tailgating, overtaking and braking dangerously in his car - were circulated widely online.

In one video, he is seen confronting another motorist who drives away - only for Mr Quek to chase after him.

Netizens called him "public enemy", "ugly" and an "Ah Beng". He was also subjected to what netizens call CSI - named after the television series Crime Scene Investigation - when personal information about him, his family and girlfriend was dug up and shared online for all to flame.

Mr Quek apologised for what he did on the road, but said he had become a victim of "cyber Ah Bengs" himself.

"My girlfriend's photos have been taken from her Facebook account and posted on the forums," he told The New Paper. He said his family and girlfriend had been harassed, claimed he had received death threats, and pleaded with netizens to remove his parents' address from the Internet.

Is it all going too far, when an alleged wrongdoer ends up appearing like the victim of an online mob attack?

The state of online conduct in Singapore is troubling, said Dr Michael Netzley, a media researcher and the academic director of executive development at Singapore Management University.

"Any time somebody appoints himself judge, jury and executioner, we have a drastic problem," he said.

Dr Netzley, who has researched digital media across Asia, compared online "CSI" activity here to what is known as the "human flesh search engine" in China, where netizen mobs turn on individuals and make their lives a misery by posting their personal details online.

The bullying has driven some victims in China to the brink of suicide, he said.

International communications and social media expert Lars Voedisch wondered whether some netizens were taking justice into their own hands because they felt helpless, feeling official authorities were not doing enough.

"It's actually quite cowardly behaviour, independent of being lawful or not," said Mr Voedisch, who has worked in Singapore for more than 10 years.

Social media lawyer Lionel Tan, of law firm Rajah & Tann, said anyone who feels threatened online can seek legal advice to find out if the threat constitutes criminal intimidation under the Penal Code. These should not be mere insults, but comments that threaten injury to the person, his property or reputation. The victim can lodge a police report.

"People have to realise that the laws of Singapore apply to whatever is done or uttered, whether offline or online," said Mr Tan. "They shouldn't have the impression that different rules apply in the online world. There's no complete freedom - even though it may feel like it. Don't continue to think the online world can't be governed or policed. It can."

He said the authorities could step in to encourage good online conduct or introduce laws to let victims of cyber bullying seek redress.

Dr Netzley said: "What I don't want is for the Government, at some point, to decide that they've had enough and are going to start tracking people online. But any time you push the limits online, you invite the Government to make restrictions.

"People must do better at self-regulation, and there needs to be more citizens willing to speak up and say, 'This is wrong'."


What he did: Last month, the British wealth manager posted two Facebook comments referring to public transport commuters in Singapore as "poor people".

The reaction: Netizens took offence and circulated his comments widely. He was flamed online and his actions were reported in both the local and international press. He said he and his family were threatened by netizens.

The result: He apologised, left his job here and left with his family for Perth by the end of the week.

Quek Zhen Hao, 24

What he did: Last week, the undergraduate was caught on video twice in the same day driving dangerously. The clips, in which he was shown tailgating, overtaking and braking suddenly, were posted online and went viral.

The reaction: He was roundly flamed online and netizens posted his home address and girlfriend's photos. He also claimed he had received death threats.

The result: Mr Quek has apologised on video. He has also appealed to netizens to leave his family alone and remove his parents' address from the Internet.


"Any time somebody appoints himself judge, jury and executioner, we have a drastic problem."

DR MICHAEL NETZLEY, a media researcher and the academic director of executive development at Singapore Management University

The cost of getting too personal online
By Carol Soon, Published The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2014

TODAY is global Safer Internet Day and is an opportune time to sketch some lessons on social media etiquette that have come to the fore. It is likely that January 2014 will be remembered for the unfortunate series of incidents following posts by British expatriate Anton Casey.

The wealth manager's online posts of what seemed like personal snapshots - his son travelling on the MRT and another of his son in his luxury car - with inappropriate captions that appeared to insult the poor and the ordinary commuter brought him instant ignominy.

Within hours, netizens incensed by his remarks had posted information on his employment details, his supervisor's contact and his residential address online, along with angry comments directed at him and his family.

The heat got so bad that within a week, Mr Casey had lost his job and left Singapore with his family, citing "death threats".

This case is curious because one would think that, by now, people would have learnt to be circumspect about what they post online, after the recent string of incidents involving people shooting their mouths off on social media and getting into hot water.

Sadly, this has not happened, and it makes the case for educating Internet users on the benefits of self-preservation.

In Singapore, the Media Literacy Council (MLC) is tasked with the core mission of developing "public education programmes that will help the public navigate media, especially the Internet, safely and responsibly" and "promoting a safe, secure and civil media environment for all".

To guide online behaviour, the MLC came up with a set of core values: empathy, responsibility, respect, integrity, inspiring others positively, astuteness and discernment.

These are useful in inculcating positive values that guide technology use. They also appeal to people's sense of responsibility.

The MLC website does have useful tips on how to protect personal information online, such as connecting only with people we know offline, asking friends not to post pictures of us or our family without permission, and working with websites concerned to remove false or private information about ourselves.

While these tips are important and timely, there's a need to send a stronger message: that what you do and post online has consequences offline.

This approach may sound more self-serving than an appeal for empathy, but research has established that most people are driven primarily by self-gratification rather than by altruistic motives when they go online.

A study by Anita Whiting and David Williams points to why most people use social media. Besides social interaction, information-seeking and entertainment, people use social media to express their thoughts and opinions, criticise others and blow off steam. Social media is often used as a personal promotion vehicle where users "market their own personal brand".

In a 2010 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, researchers said members of Generation Y in the US will continue to disclose huge amounts of personal information. What is their main motive? It is to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic and political opportunities.

I once participated in a radio talk show held at a junior college in the north zone and was impressed by the students who were self-aware, articulate and confident. They shared their views on online sharing.

Responding to a fellow panellist's appeal for people to behave responsibly online, a female student questioned why she had to do so and said candidly that when she goes online, she says things that she cannot express freely in the offline world.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing personal interests but we need to drive home the message that every action online, just as in the real world, comes at a cost.

The time we spend online is a cost; it is an opportunity cost as we have less time for other tasks or modes of interaction.

We incur social costs when we are publicly shamed and criticised, damaging our reputation in our school, workplace or community.

An even more severe cost would be legal ramifications when we get on the wrong side of the law.

Whether it is the female polytechnic student who made a disparaging remark about Indians, or the former labour movement employee who made a Facebook post filled with expletives on Malay weddings, these individuals have paid a price in one form or another for their actions online.

What seems like common sense is not so common after all.

Three commonly overlooked characteristics of Internet technologies and their implications should be ingrained in users.

One is the loosening of inhibitions due to the Internet's anonymity, resulting in us saying things we normally would not say to one another face to face.

Another is the increasingly non-existent boundary between what is private and public, and the speed at which one's personal details can be dug up and spread online. What we share online, or do offline for that matter, is almost guaranteed to come under the scrutiny of strangers.

Take the recent case of Mr Quek Zhen Hao. After two videos showing him behaving aggressively on the road went viral, anonymous Web users found his parents' address and photos of his girlfriend, and posted them online.

Third, everything is permanent on the Web - the text, photographs and videos we post online can be easily copied and reposted repeatedly, making it near impossible to wipe one's slate clean.

In short, users should realise that what they say or do online will define them to the invisible masses, who will not hesitate in unearthing personal details about them in the name of information-sharing.

While it is all so easy and tempting to share bits and bytes of our lives, the simplest yet seemingly hardest thing to do is to pause and think of the price attached to what we share.

Greater awareness of the characteristics of Internet technologies will compel users to be more circumspect when they post content online. At the least, it could prevent them from becoming the next headline, in print or in cyberspace.

Dr Carol Soon is research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. A longer version of this piece is also available at www.ipscommons.sg


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