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.


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