When recent comments from MICA, from Lui, are interpreted as attempts to control internet content, that completely misses the point, in my view.
What China does – actively searching out for anti-govt blogs on an hourly basis and actively blocking them out , or jailing the blog writers – THAT is internet content control. Control means acting to determine what content is or is not posted online.
In Singapore, comments from State regulators and legislators DISCREDITS internet content – specifically internet POLITICAL content. It does not control, nor can it control, for reasons that many excellent writers have pointed out.
How internet content is discredited
When Dr Lee of MICA recently commented that “There is a difference from giving such (banned political) films the privilege to circulate FREELY in Singapore, to saying that those who want to watch it, you go to the DARK REACHES of the Internet and watch it.”, the subtle message internet-un-saavy people get is that offline information is accurate and well-intentioned, whereas internet content is inaccurate, has underlying ill motives, and is trying to brainwash you.
When Lui remarks that “the Internet is not an effective self-REGULATED regime as some may have touted it to be”, the subtle message is that the internet is in need of regulation, meaning that it must be chaotic and irresponsible to begin with.
Just like if I were to take a person from a mountain top, who has never been to Singapore before, and bring him to Geylang, to Desker Road, show him all the toilet graffiti and litter, he would easily believe my words when I say that “the vast MAJORITY were unhelpful, a significant number were unkind, a small number were downright outrageous”. He’ll believe that the Esplanade and Singapore Museum does not exist. Just like people believe sites like TheOnlineCitizen, or TheSingaporeEnquirer, or SingaporeDaily.net does not exist.
When TODAY published their follow-up report How Some Bloggers Set the Tone (http://www.todayonline.com/articles/300644.asp), they basically printed ‘confessions’ from the ‘culprits’: “Mr Choo Zheng Xi, editor of The Online Citizen, CONCEDED that netizens’ response to such comments “could have been stronger”.” “WHEN blogger Rachel Chung read some unkind comments by netizens over the fiery attack on Yio Chu Kang MP Seng Han Thong last month, she felt compelled to respond. “I blogged that some people condoned the attacker and felt disgusted,” she told Today.” The subtle message? Look, the bloggers have confessed, no one is misrepresenting them.
What could be the motive for this concerted effort to discredit political content on the internet?
Looking at 2 very relevant recent elections – the US elections, the Malaysian elections – we see the rising influence that internet content and tools (like Facebook) has on the election outcome . Local political parties have noticed this. Opposition parties make their presence felt by contributing to this comment and organizing events via the internet. The ruling party has also noticed it, and made alterations to the law to enable themselves to legally harness this new media, should the need arise in future.
A sophisticated government would not even attempt to control the internet content. Firstly, you shoot yourself in the foot, because it stops you from using the media effectively yourself. Secondly, you can never totally control all the information, and the news that you are actually controlling content (as China does) will eventually get out. That will make you look controlling, immature, and worse, ineffective. Thirdly, for our commerce, research and industry to prosper, internet control would be very unhelpful.
If you think about it carefully, it is not what gets written, that influences the election results. It is what people THINK about the things that are written, that influences the election result. Once you have grasped that, you will move away from controlling what gets written and posted online, to influencing the thoughts of people. Discrediting the political information you get from the internet is the perfect way to start.
The MP Seng incident is a perfect incident which can be used to discredit internet content. Diversity of views have long been publicized as being potentially violent and destabilizing. The Race Riots, and internation protest marches that turned violent are constantly used to justify State control on public demonstrations. When this diversity of views get aired online, it becomes harder to claim that these “protests” can turn violent.
MP Seng’s incident presented the perfect opportunity for persuading the internet-un-saavy that the long held matras of diversity=violence, still holds with the internet community. A violent act committed by a person who is likely insane, now becomes “committed” and “endorsed” by the internet community.
The message the internet-un-saavy electorate will remember is that any news from the internet is written by unkind, unjust, violent terrorists, who spout inaccurate information, with the evil underlying motive of brainwashing the good Singaporeans.
Internet political content has just acquired the same reputation as pornography and criminals.
Is there are need to control internet content?
There wouldn’t be if this negative PR blitz is kept up, which I suspect it will. A point will be reached when anything can be posted online, true or false, and it will no longer be believed. Unless the website is a government website with the credentials and authority. Why is there the insistence that the government would only engage citizen feedback through REACH and nowhere else? Because engaging on any other website would legitimize them, and they can no longer be painted as monsters.
Discrediting internet content this way works because the vast majority of the electorate is internet-un-saavy. While it is true that internet penetration in our population is one of the highest in the world, with 80% of households having internet access, most of the older generation use the internet in a very rudimentary way, and are often bombarded by warnings against the “dangers” lurking on the internet. It is very easy to capitalize on these fears and misinformation. As the demographics of the electorate shift, this strategy of discreditation will no longer work, but I believe by then, persuasion methods would have evolved accordingly.
What can WE, the internet-saavy citizens, do?
On our part as the internet-saavy and misrepresented, what can we do? Writing brilliant articles read by the converted will do little. I think most internet-saavy people, including blog writers and readers, already understand the situation. We need to move away from the “us” versus “them” mentality, and remember that each of us is part of a family, part of a community. Our strength is not our words, but our personal ties. In our conversations with our family and friends, colleagues and classmates, we can talk about what we’ve learnt from online content. We can share how TheOnlineCitizen was the first to break the news on abandoned workers, and how the mainstream press then followed up.
This may not be a loud voice of justice, but this is a voice that will be listened to. A voice that will carry the credibility of alternative news, and the safety of diverse views, from the virtual to the real world.