By Kimberly Ng
Witch-hunting has evolved from the persecution of wrongdoers in the 18th century to the online flaming of individuals in modern times.
The motivation remains the same. People want to deliver justice.
More often than not, they rely on their own understanding of the story, formed through information from various sources. These include word of mouth, social media posts and newspaper articles.
By forming interpretations of a story, people reach different opinions, with room for revision if new information is obtained. While there is nothing wrong with having opinions and expressing them online, people asserting their opinions as the truth may be problematic. That becomes a form of judgement.
In this age where we can connect our thoughts and emotions to millions around the world with the click of a button, exchanging opinions give us the opportunity to learn and mature. But when we make quick judgments, we may ignore the ideas of others and shut down lines of communication. This results in conflict, which may lead to severe consequences offline.
Havoc online and offline
American YouTuber Logan Paul bore the brunt of the online witch hunt early this year. He captured on film the dead body of a suicide victim in the Aokigahara forest in Japan and posted his reactions on YouTube.
The video chalked up over six million views before it was taken down, amid backlash from the online community.
Social media platforms were flooded with opinions criticising Logan Paul for his lack of sensitivity. A number of articles explained the significance of the forest, where several Japanese in the past had gone to end their lives.
And then there were those who condemned him with comments such as “Logan Paul is a blight to our society and should be banned from YouTube” and “Logan Paul deserves to die”.
Following the backlash that he received, Paul had to hire a security team to monitor his home in Los Angeles.
Eventually, YouTube removed his account from their Google Preferred system, and even suspended all advertisements on his videos.
It is natural for us to put blame on wrongdoers. We expect the person to repent and take corrective measures. Yet, when the mob goes beyond that and threatens the lives and livelihoods of people, then witch hunting has taken things too far.
When witch hunting occurs online, we are often quick to jump to conclusions and assert our claims. We also forget that our words have tangible consequences.
In 2013, five students from St Margaret’s Secondary School sought the permission of their then-principal, Mrs Marion Tan, to take part in the annual Hair for Hope charity event. The request was granted, on the account that the girls would wear wigs when they returned to school.
Three of the girls did not do so and were made to buy wigs before attending class. Word spread and people criticised Mrs Tan online, posting comments such as “incompetent bigot” and “ugly old-fashioned hag”. The issue caught the attention of mainstream media.
Because of the backlash, then-Minister of Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat, had to step in to speak with Mrs Tan and post a public announcement explaining the incident on his Facebook page. Mrs Tan also made an apology to the school during morning assembly.
In this instance, the online space was able to facilitate discussions on empathy towards cancer patients, the importance of keeping promises, and the rigidness of school rules. Talking points like these can help to create a more mature society.
However, comments that propagate hate and make personal attacks on individuals will breed narrow-mindedness and are likely to have the opposite effect.
The danger of online discussions is that information often represents only part of the story. Netizens might also only seek out information that aligns with their own pre-existing attitudes. Hence, the public may make misinformed judgements in the name of justice.
In 2017, an account of a road dispute between drivers of a BMW and Chevrolet was shared on social media. A dashcam video clip was uploaded by the BMW driver first, and he received backlash as the public judged that he was not giving way.
Public criticism was targeted at the Chevrolet driver instead when the driver posted his video. It was deemed that the driver overtook the BMW dangerously.
This incident shows how quickly public opinion can be swayed.
Associate Prof Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore, said: “The vigilantes and their audiences may be too quick to judge without knowing the full facts, given a tendency to act on the basis of partial information and an inclination towards self-righteousness, manifested as ‘righteous’ anger.”
Netizens need to be careful not to make a spectacle out of the misfortune of others. Making judgements can be thrilling, but as NTU sociology professor Sam Han said: “ To treat (people) and their suffering or misfortune as entertainment speaks quite poorly of our capacity for empathy and compassion.”
At the core, online witch hunting seeks to right a wrong. But there are other ways to fight for worthwhile causes. For instance, the empowering #metoo and #timesup movements saw people banding together worldwide on social media to stand up and speak out against sexual harassment.
Let us come together to promote positivity. People make mistakes online and offline. While it is natural for us to speak out against wrongdoings, let us remember that everyone has feelings and a sense of dignity. Rather than spiraling down a tunnel of hate, we can build a more compassionate society.