• The Convergence

Social Media: A Catalyst for Discourse or a Double-Edged Sword?

By Wayde Chan, Editor


Introduction


It is no doubt that the internet is an integral part of our lives. The COVID-19 outbreak throughout 2020 saw many countries entering a lockdown, with schools and workplaces going online.


Come 2021, while Singapore is steadily recovering from the pandemic by moving into Phase 3 of the Safe Reopening Measures, other countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) have gone into lockdown once again. [2]


Given the new, contagious B117 strain from the UK being spread abroad, online learning and Work-From-Home (WFH) arrangements seem to be here to stay in the near future. In fact, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has declared that secondary schools, junior colleges, and Millennia Institute will have fortnightly Home-Based Learning (HBL) sessions from Term 3 in 2021. [3]


With more people using the internet, the usage of social media will naturally skyrocket. Social media is also already a staple in many people’s lives, especially for youths and working adults. As of 2020, 79% of Singapore residents have active access to social media, and 88% have access to the internet. [4] The question then poses itself - what’s there not to love when it comes to social media?


Well, as much as social media has the potential to unite, it has an equally powerful, and perhaps even scarier, potential to divide. The fact that online sources present the opportunity for people to engage in discourse while hiding behind a veil of anonymity may be empowering to some, but highly damaging to others. It is very much a double-edged sword.


There is no denying that social media is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But is this really for the better, and are the negative drawbacks really inevitable? Is it possible to mitigate or reduce these drawbacks?


The Good


Before exploring into the potential harms of social media, it is only fair to acknowledge the benefits it has brought to humankind.


Social media has brought people together like never before. Anyone with an internet connection, a staple in developed nations, can simply log on to any social media accounts and be connected to millions of users around the world. Families and friends who have been separated due to border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have overcome their physical barriers through virtual meets - apps such as Zoom, Google Meets and Facebook Messenger have increased their capabilities for such functions.


The phenomenon of online dating and dating sites have also increased, with people being connected online with potential romantic partners more frequently than ever before. Dating sites are not just limited to Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, and OkCupid, but even Facebook has introduced a “Dating” function into its app.


Social media also increases access to information to its users, primarily through the ease of access to online news sites. Long gone are the days in Singapore where the only ways of reading the news are the daily newspaper and the evening news broadcast. Not only can users access CNA, The Straits Times, and TODAY at any time with just a few clicks of the button, they are also exposed to a wide range of ‘Alternative’ or ‘New’ media such as Mothership, The Online Citizen, and The Convergence.


Foreign news sites such as The Guardian are also readily available for consumption all across the world. Access to information is not just limited to online news sites too; private journalists and citizens now have a platform where they can broadcast their views and information to a potentially large audience.


With increased access to information, it necessarily follows that netizens are more aware of global happenings, and can be said to be more ‘woke’ about general trends within and outside of Singapore.


The #MeToo movement which saw a breakthrough in popularity in 2017 [5] spread globally and saw an increased demand in accountability for sexual assault offenders. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement hit its peak (thus far) in 2020, sparking protests and outcries internationally following the slaying of George Floyd by the U.S. Police.


In Southeast Asia, the recent Myanmar coup saw information being pumped out for international attention even with the Myanmar military rampantly shutting down access to the outside world. Last month, they had shut down Facebook, which was used by almost half of the local population to communicate and even organise civil protests against the military regime. [6] Locally, the controversial case about the MOE’s purported treatment of a transgender student also sparked large public discourse in January this year.


Through social media, netizens may thus be more aware about happenings within and outside of Singapore, which may contribute to a more knowledgeable and intelligent society. Due to the open nature of social media, people are also able to participate in social discourses and exchange views with many others online.


The Bad


Likewise, with good comes the bad. There are numerous harms which plague the well-intended social media scene across the world. While the remainder of this article will focus on social media’s effect on social discourse, it is worth mentioning a couple of other concerning developments which follow from the rise of social media.


Due to the interconnectedness of the world and versatility of the internet, new technology allows for multiple apps to be connected to promote a seamless experience for its users. It is hence unsurprising that many people have their social media accounts linked to their bank accounts and/or personal information.


This has led to an increase of fraudulent impersonation and credit card scams. Life savings have been depleted, accounts hacked into, and innocent victims’ lives have been ruined due to these ever-evolving scams. The rise of online dating has also given rise to credit-for-sex scams, with millions of dollars being lost to such scams in 2019. [7]


Social media has also led to a gravely concerning rise of self-radicalized extremists who plot and potentially carry out acts of terror in the name of a higher being. The detaining of a 16-year-old in January this year was a relieving yet frightening realization that while the Singapore Internal Security Department (ISD) is working hard to prevent terrorism on our island, there is an increasing trend of youths - both domestically and internationally - being radicalized online to carry out acts of terror.


In fact, 7 youths under the age of 20 have been detained under the ISD in the last 6 years. [8] With netizens having easy access to online extremist sites, the issue of radicalized youths and persons in Singapore does not appear to be solvable overnight.


Turning back to online discourse, increased access leads to more discourse, and more discourse leads to greater awareness. But greater awareness does not necessarily lead to a more conducive and constructive internet.


A concerning trend with an increasingly young online demographic is that online activism often plays to their audience’s hearts, not their rational minds. Awareness is sparked not just by communicating information, but in a way that stokes strong emotions in the readers’ hearts. This is not always a good thing. When people’s emotions overcome their rational minds, negative consequences often follow.


For example, the BLM movement was born out of sympathy and solidarity for the oppression faced by minorities around the world. It was supposed to unite and educate people around the world. Occurring during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was perhaps one of the most talked about issues in 2020. But it soon led to troubling, concerning effects.


Proponents of the BLM movement had turned on each other and accused other supporters of ‘slacktivism’. What was supposed to educate the majority races of racism soon turned into aggravated calls to “check your privilege”, which had been counterproductive to the whole movement.


Online activism can spur some into pushing their causes, quite literally, “on the streets”. Actions taken by activists are not always legal, and they do have societal implications.


Recently, 3 people were arrested for protesting outside the MOE HQ building for the alleged mistreatment of the transgender student. [9] While this protest was harmless and the protestors set out in good faith, the protest is still illegal. This protest potentially sets a dangerous precedent which may lead to more physical protests in the future, a huge cause for concern in a safe and law-abiding Singapore.


Furthermore, the increase in online activism has also led to a rise of cancel culture and doxxing. Cancel culture in Singapore is a worrying trend, where people accused of misdeeds online are pelted with hate and abuse. All this is done without the person being ‘cancelled’ being proven to have done the misdeeds. A trial-by-internet is often manifestly unfair to the persons being cancelled, for netizens play the role of judge, jury, and executioner.


Doxxing is an even more dangerous extension of cancel culture, with people’s personal details (such as contact numbers and addresses) being splashed online, leading to other netizens harassing these people through spam calls, hate mail, or pranks. Notable cases of doxxing include Anton Casey, Amy Cheong, and Jover Chew.


The Law? [10]


Fortunately, laws exist to curb the detriments of the above phenomena. In the case of cancel culture and doxxing, sections 3, 4, and 5 of the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) criminalizes causing “harassment, alarm, or distress” and the fear or provocation of violence to someone using “threatening, abusive, or insulting” words or behaviour.


Section 7 further criminalizes unlawful stalking, which includes repetitive harassing conduct. Section 11 further elaborates that perpetrators of harassment can face both civil and criminal action. People who “retweet” or repost someone’s personal information intending to cause harassment may be prosecuted under the act too.


As seen, POHA covers a wide range of offences regarding online misconduct, such as hate speech, cancel culture, and doxxing. From a legal point of view, there appears to be sufficient measures to tackle these ongoing issues.


But are they truly enough?


Laws are present to punish criminal behaviour, and by-and-large they discourage people from committing similar offences in the future. But that doesn’t necessarily make the online community a constructive and safe one, at best they make the online a less destructive and less unsafe one.


To truly have a proper online space for constructive and affirmative conversations, the change needs to come from society itself. No amount of laws can change the undesirable attitudes that pervade some corners of the Singapore online community.


While the internet is a good place for people to gain information and become more politically and socially aware, perhaps sometimes it is best that these conversations carry on offline. It is unproductive and to some extent, dangerous, to have educational dialogues and discourse online, especially if they touch on sensitive topics such as race, religion, and sex.


As the online community may not be the best place to manifest safe education, advocacy groups such as OnePeople.SG, Hash.Peace and Roses of Peace conduct activities related to race and religion in private face-to-face settings with very strict rules on confidentiality and mutual respect, which are also moderated by highly trained facilitators.


Furthermore, learning is perhaps best done through face-to-face interactions instead of cancelling a person online. After local influencer Sheena Phua made an allegedly racist comment about turbans, the Young Sikh Association (YSA) invited her to visit their gurdwara for an educational tour. [11] After all, the best solution to ignorance is not hate, but education.


Conclusion


The rise of the internet and social media has been a huge blessing to many, bringing everyone closer together than ever before. However, while social media brings out the best in some, it can also bring out the worst in others. Social media has more than served its purpose, but there will always exist a portion of its users rearing their ugly heads, causing unhappiness and distress to others.


But we have to accept that social media is here to stay for many decades to come, and possibly for the rest of our lives. We also cannot change the fact that there will remain some people who insist on spreading negativity online and making the online community a toxic one. The only thing we can change is how we react to it.


Instead of giving in to the hate, it may serve people better to pause and think thrice before making some comments online, or seek alternative ways to address the issue at hand. As suggested earlier, many issues arise because of social media, but not all issues need to be solved through social media.


After all, there is a Chinese Confucian saying which goes “人之初,性本善”, or “humans are fundamentally compassionate”. At the very least, perhaps we can all try to exercise more compassion, online or otherwise.




Bibliography


[1] https://www.northhertsfm.com/post/the-internet-and-how-it-s-a-double-edged-sword


[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55554550


[3] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/regular-home-based-learning-days-implemented-schools-moe-13859844


[4] https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-singapore#:~:text=There%20were%204.60%20million%20social,at%2079%25%20in%20January%202020


[5] https://metoomvmt.org/


[6] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-facebook-focus-idUSKBN2A42RY


[7] https://www.police.gov.sg/media-room/news/20200417_others_police_advisory_on_credit_for_sex_scams


[8] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/rise-of-right-wing-extremism-in-singapore-a-worrying-development-shanmugam


[9] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/moe-transphobia-protest-3-arrested-student-hormone-therapy-14045320


[10] https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/PHA2014


[11] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/sikh-group-invites-influencer-to-gurdwara-after-her-instagram-post-on-two-men-wearing



Wayde is a Year 1 freshman studying at the Faculty of Law, and is an Editor for The Convergence this year. As the most junior member of the Editorial Team, he opines that political awareness is the hallmark of an active and informed society, and should be expected of every responsible citizen. He feels that politics encompasses every part of life, and in fact was his source of life during his post-NS pre-Uni period (Read: COVID-19). He is not shy to admit that GE2020 brought a great deal of colour to his otherwise “Circuit Broken” life. Outside of The Convergence and his (mountains of) Law readings, he can either be found listening to sad Chinese songs, watching his favourite football club, Manchester United (GGMU), or failing to cure his unhealthy obsession with Japanese Mayonnaise.


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