Month: February 2012

The TRE’s “Deluge of Comments”. My take.

TR Emeritus website flooded by defamatory comments

Here are some excerpts from Straits Times article published today. There is no point linking to it, since this sterling reporting is unavailable unless you log in. 

Netizens have inundated TR Emeritus (TRE) with defamatory comments since it apologised on Wednesday to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for an article that allegedly defamed him and his wife Ho Ching. The sociopolitical website’s editors appealed to those responsible to stop, even as they said they are pondering whether to shut it down… In an article on the website, they said that by 4am on Thursday, moderators had had to delete at least 300 comments that were ‘outright defamatory and seditious’ – six times more than what they would usually have had to remove… Pointing to the ensuing deluge of comments, TRE editors said never before had they needed to remove more than 50 comments in a day. ‘We have every valid reason to believe that these comments were posted intentionally to get TRE into further trouble.’

They said the defamatory comments were not from their regular pool of commentators, whose monikers are largely recognisable in the website’s community.

They added they would report postings deemed unlawful to the authorities. But genuine commentators need not worry about being exposed, they said.

My take

My first impression when I read about the comments was not that they were attempts to get the site into trouble and get it closed down. I admit that unless I see the deleted comments for myself I will not be able to say for sure, but I think that another likely explanation is that the comments are a protest (in the spirit of hacking) against the government’s online “whack-a-mole” strategy (I’m referring to legal notices to websites for defamatory content, as in the case of yawningbread and TREmeritus). It’s worth comparing TRE with The Online Citizen. The former seems beleaguered by the rush of activity. while the latter took that rush and ran with it, turning it into a valuable training ground for the sort of informal habit of deliberation that social media has proven to be so effective at providing. As Cherian George suggested, TRE is going to have to decide where it fits in Singapore’s mediascape. Scaling up means it becomes more influential in the future of Singapore politics. After all, the recent General Elections have shown us that we do have space out in the open for (admittedly selective) alternative views. But scaling up also means more responsibility for fact checking and garnering more support in the form of funds, legal advice, site moderators, etc. Scaling down means TRE becomes a niche blog for the small group that admires its shoot-from-the-hip, vigilante style of writing and for the larger mediascape that is made richer by the attempts of multiple small scale actors to attack sacred cows by suggestion, if not by facts. But scaling down also means that TRE loses its individual voice.

I don’t think that the whack-a-mole strategy is an effective one in the long run. But in the short run, it does seem to fit in with the theory of calibrated coercion that Cherian wrote about in 2005. The picture has become more complex since then, of course. Whether or not social media has empowered people, the fact is that people perceive that they are more empowered. I think this is important, because it puts us on a learning curve. The awareness that writers like Cherian and Alex Au have helped to build has grown in leaps and bounds, partly thanks to social media. The deluge of comments on TRE could be part of this learning. They may have been neither rational nor deliberative, but they can be seen as an example of a resistance to coercion – calibrated or otherwise. I have no way of judging, of course, because as I said above, I haven’t seen the comments. This is merely a theory I am putting forward.

Clay Shirky, in his book “Cognitive Surplus”, writes about a project called Ushahidi, that made use of the Internet to achieve meaningful social change. Interestingly, he links this to the phenomenon of “lolcatz” through the idea that creative and social play is something anyone can do. The message comes through even if it’s something as stupid as lolcatz. It’s at the other end of the spectrum from Ushahidi. But it’s still on the spectrum. The regularity of features of lolcatz shows that there is a way to do it wrong, which means that is also a way to do it right. There is, Shirky says, “some metric of quality, even if limited.” Similarly, the same atmosphere of repoliticisation and the sense of empowerment that produced reflective and well-supported blog posts has also produced rants and hacker-type comment deluges. It’s all on the spectrum.

 

Fluidity fatigue

I had to go to Mount Elizabeth today, and decided to take the train because I didn’t feel up to navigating peak hour traffic. The train ride didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would. So I ended up at Orchard MRT station a half hour before my appointment. My plan to sit out the half hour at a café somewhere never materialised. I couldn’t find my way out of the underpass! (Just a note for those who aren’t familiar with the place: the station is underground, and there is an underpass that leads to various points around the major crossroads above the ground where the station is located.) I tried three different exits, emerging each time from the underpass either on the wrong road, or the wrong side of the right road. Of course there were only so many options and elimination eventually got me to the right exit, just in time for my appointment.

I tweeted about this, and one follower jokingly asked if I were new to Singapore. That set me thinking. In some ways I am not new to Singapore. I was born here, went to school here, have spent my whole life here. But in some ways I am new to Singapore, because the Singapore I know keeps changing. I wasn’t new to Orchard Road today, but I was new to its current configuration. Fluidity of physical spaces is a constant here, as my last blog post suggests. A reality of modern society and a response to land scarcity, this fluidity can be refreshing for a vibrant young city, but it can also prove grating sometimes and lead to fatigue.

I see some aspects of this in the recent episode where residents in Woodlands expressed concern when they heard about plans to build a day care facility for the elderly in their neighbourhood. Of course there are many issues embedded in this and other such episodes. One Straits Times reader wrote that “If the HDB had stuck to its original aim of selling flats at cost and for residing in rather than as investment assets, residents would have less of a leg to stand on if a host of socially enhancing facilities like childcare and elder-care centres are built.” This is an intriguing way of looking at the issue, and I think that it certainly explains the perspective of those who express fear that the value of their property will fall if an elder day care centre were to be built nearby. There is clearly a mismatch between the way in which citizens view their living spaces and how the state views the same spaces, as there is between citizens’ views of living spaces and how the state thinks citizens ought to view them.

Another way in which the issue has been framed is in the form of a division between two camps – those who care about the elderly and those who don’t. (Click here for a more nuanced view of this argument.) But maybe there are some people who just need their physical spaces to contain some continuity. Perhaps it is unsettling to keep having the rug pulled out from under your feet, especially if it is made of concrete and therefore gave the impression of being permanent. When it was announced that Ren Ci hospital was going to build a facility in an open space in Bukit Batok, this is how some residents felt. Again, they were portrayed as uncaring of the elderly, materialistic and selfish, accused of having a “not in my backyard” mentality. If I had just looked at the articles in the press and some of the blog posts, I would probably have come to the same conclusion. But this time it was different. This time it was my backyard.

Do I know that we are facing a shortage of facilities for our increasingly aging population? Yes. Do I care about the elderly? Yes. Do I worry about the price of my flat? No (Very early on I realised that there is not much I can do about it). Do I feel that the elderly should not be in my backyard? No. On the contrary, I think it is a good idea to integrate facilities for the elderly into the neighbourhood. I am very opposed to the idea of packing our seniors away in remote areas.

So what was the problem? For an outsider, it seemed like a no-brainer. There is an open space. Why not go ahead with building a hospital for the elderly there? The problem was that this was not just a waste land, but a space that was very well used by the community. Everyday the space was filled with people: seniors exercising in the morning, children playing in the evening, families sitting around and chatting after dinner. At the risk of sounding like a National Day Parade script, there were people of all races and ages sharing the space, reflecting and constructing a sense of community as they escaped the closely spaced boxes they lived in and enjoyed the open space together.

A group of residents tried to make their voices heard. They gathered opinions from their neighbours and managed to speak to the MP. They suggested alternate spaces for the hospital, all very much within the neighbourhood. What they learned was that the decision to use the space for the hospital had already been made, and was irreversible. A new open space has been built under the MRT track. It is neither as big, nor as peaceful as the original space. We will adapt, as we always do.

But something has changed. In my mind, episodes like this show that we are renegotiating our identities as citizens. Fluidity fatigue, as I see it, points to a need for roots, and some semblance of continuity. Sometimes it can be strong enough to push normally pliant and apathetic citizens to organise themselves and try to effect some change. It can make us question the sort of relationship we want with our government, our position on social justice and community building, and our connections with our fellow citizens. In our technological society, where efficiency is an overarching framework, episodes like this put the spotlight back on the humans who are struggling to cope.