Thursday, 27 August 2015

Online vitriol gives rise to dismay among politicians

By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 25 Aug 2015

To politicians, social media these days is a double-edged sword. While it is a valuable tool for engagement, retiring People’s Action Party Member of Parliament (MP) Ellen Lee is among those who have rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty, only to be disappointed by how falsehoods circulated online can undo years of good work by not only themselves, but also those before them.

Ms Lee, who entered politics in 2006, cited the Central Provident Fund (CPF) as an example. She said while many accept that the CPF system is largely beneficial to Singaporeans, opinions were being swayed online by lies. “Those who try to reason will be flamed and regarded as pro-government,” she said. People are just receiving information online whether it is true or not, she lamented.

Announcing her decision to step down earlier this month, Ms Lee said then that the atmosphere for politicians had changed. Speaking to TODAY, she stressed that her frustration with cyberspace did not contribute to her decision to leave politics.

Nevertheless, she said she had been on the receiving end of some criticism online. She tried to track the source of these negative comments on Facebook, but found that some had been posted via fake accounts, she added.

Veteran PAP MP Inderjit Singh, who has also announced his retirement, said he had encountered his fair share of online vitriol, including people who use vulgarities. Nevertheless, he felt that these experiences were a minority. He added that he does not respond to every single criticism. Instead, he would try to determine if the ground sentiment corroborates with the feedback online.

Like Ms Lee, he said it is important for more of those who have been silent to speak up, so the discourse online would be more balanced.

PAP MP Alvin Yeo, who is stepping down after two terms, said that even though he does not have a Facebook account, his friends would notify him of negative online comments about him. To him, it is important to discern what is genuine feedback and to stay focused on his work as a politician.

Following the announcement that Mr Lui Tuck Yew will step down as Transport Minister, some of his Cabinet colleagues spoke out against the vilification and mocking of him online.

Not only have politicians from the ruling party borne the brunt of online attacks. With people posting negative comments on the Facebook page of Mr Desmond Lim’s company, the online harassment of the Singapore Democratic Alliance chairman has become so bad that he said on Facebook last week that if the situation continues, it might lead him to quit his job or leave politics.

Since an edited version of one of his old campaign videos went viral earlier this month, Mr Lim has been ridiculed for his command of English. While he accepts that there will be detractors, there is no need to make him lose his livelihood and affect his family, he told TODAY. “Is this the way we want politics to be? Who else will dare step forward to contest?” he asked.

Over the weekend, two National Solidarity Party leaders, Mr Sebastian Teo and Mr Steve Chia, were disparaged by anonymous posts put up on the Internet. Mr Teo has yet to comment on the remarks, while Mr Chia has decided not to stand in the coming election for the sake of his family.

People’s Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng said that most of the time, he would ignore the attacks unless they contain lies that smear his reputation or affect his family. He said the worst he had to face was people spreading rumours many years ago about him having a mistress. The rumours stopped only after he threatened the culprit who had started the rumour with legal action, he said. “It really should be about the contest of ideas and clean policy debate. There is no need to get ‘dirty’,” he said.

The WP’s potential new candidate Daniel Goh, who is active on social media, said he would usually respond to online criticism “not to defend (his) stance as such, but to ensure the view is truly tested in debate”. He would admit readily if he is wrong, he said.

Political observers and analysts felt the “harsher” political climate might deter people from going into politics, but aspiring politicians have little choice but to take it in their stride.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan noted that the placid environment for politicians in the past was more of an anomaly. Still, he said: “Certainly, we don’t want a toxic social-media environment either ... So, there is much to be said for keeping our political scene a healthy one, where there is free and responsible discourse, debate and engagement. If we don’t, we will be cutting our noses to spite our own faces.”

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