Are they going too far with online witch-hunts?

Personal details and photos being splashed online, raising concerns

WHEN grassroots volunteer Peter (not his real name) began discussing government policies on Facebook pages, he never imagined he would become the target of an online witch-hunt.

But within days of his engaging with some opposition supporters online, his personal details and pictures appeared on forums and websites. ‘They not only put up my personal photos, but they also published my residential address, my work address, e-mail and mobile phone number. I felt very intimidated, and I worried for my safety and my family,’ said Peter who is in his 20s.

Peter, who made a police report, declined to be named as he fears further reprisals. But the incident, which happened two years ago, still rankles him.

‘I felt violated, seeing all my personal information leaked online. The worst thing is that even now, I still don’t know who did it because they posted it anonymously,’ he added.

What happened to Peter has also happened to other people who were targeted by netizens for a range of reasons.

The targets include polytechnic student Lai Shimun who last month tweeted a racist remark about Indians; an unnamed ‘IT woman’ involved in a corruption probe in January; and university student Zheng Huiting who made an insensitive Facebook comment on the death of a full-time national serviceman this week.

The growing trend has raised questions on whether Internet vigilantism is going overboard. Known as ‘CSI-ing’ in Internet parlance, after the American TV show Crime Scene Investigation, it sees netizens trawling blogs and social media networks like Facebook and Twitter for information about a targeted individual.

Once collected, it is put up on Internet forums and websites.

The social phenomenon of online shaming is not new. Associate Professor Daniel Goh, a sociologist with the National University of Singapore, noted that citizen journalism portals such as Stomp have allowed people to upload pictures of those engaging in anti-social behaviour like eating on MRT trains.

But online shaming has taken a more intense turn in recent years, where netizens have started publishing their targets’ private photos, personal information, addresses and pictures of their targets’ loved ones. This in turn has raised questions about invasion of privacy and defamation.

Innocent parties have also been wrongly fingered. Earlier this week, netizens dished out the CSI treatment to 17-year-old Kenneth Milana, accusing him of disturbing his neighbours with noisy drumming. But it turned out they had targeted the wrong person.

‘Instead of using legal norms to sanction others, citizens are using technology to enforce societal norms. The problem is that there is no clearly outlined due process, nor avenues of appeal, unlike with institutions like the courts or the police,’ said new media academic Marko Skoric of the Nanyang Technological University.

Observers note that with the advent of social media, more Singaporeans are sharing personal information online, making it easier for people to keep tabs on total strangers.

A new generation of Singaporeans are also used to an online culture where ‘it’s generally easier for people to judge before they think’, said Ms Pat Law, founder of social media agency Goodstuph. ‘With our attention span getting shorter as a result of instant gratification online, it’s harder for a person to make discernment a discipline,’ she said.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, said he did not expect such vigilantism to reach the levels seen in China, where a similar movement called the ‘human flesh search engine’ sees thousands of Internet users joining forces to target individuals, mostly corrupt government officials.

The difference is that Singapore is a small country where citizens still trust institutions like the police and courts, he said. In contrast, China has multiple levels of government with more possibilities for corrupt officials to rise.

Such efforts here are focused on pointing out civic misbehaviour, which Prof Ang said is ‘socially desirable’. But ‘the line is crossed when there is harm inflicted on the person being named and shamed over and above what is reasonable’, he warned.

For Peter, that line was crossed when his particulars were posted online. He hopes that there could be laws giving ‘CSI’ victims some legal recourse.

‘What they did to me was tantamount to harassment. Victims should be protected, and those responsible should be taken to task,’ he said.

Lawyers said it is possible to get the Internet Protocol addresses of anonymous commenters through a court order. But the process can be laborious and expensive, and cost a few thousand dollars.

The Government is currently mulling over possible laws to curb cyber bullying and online harassment. It is also urging netizens to come up with a code of conduct.

Straits Times 
By Tessa Wong


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