Social media: a threat to morality

25 Feb 2019

By Arif Tan


IN January last year, the Singapore government announced the formation of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to focus on strategies to curb the dissemination of fake news.

Later that year, three members of the committee attended the international hearing on disinformation held in the British parliament. With participants from nine countries engaging in discussions on how to combat fake news, the conference was a reflection of how social media had become a powerful platform to spread false information to the masses. Studies also show that people are emboldened to be more verbally aggressive on social media than when they interact face-to-face.

But at the root of all these problems is the lack of a moral compass when using social media platforms; people comment, create or share content without fully examining the consequences of their actions.

Ubiquity of social media hooligans

In the virtual world, a social media hooligan is one who engages in acts that, if put in the context of a face-to-face interaction, are likely to result in a heated argument or even a physical fight. In the virtual world, this means posting nasty comments, or directing discriminatory remarks towards others. It could also include sharing posts that humiliate others.

It is easy to hide behind a veil of anonymity on the internet. Even in cases where parties are not anonymous, the aggressive environment created by a few individuals can influence others to become aggressive as well, a study on online aggression from the Computers in Human Behaviour journal revealed.

An example of this is when hoards of netizens lashed out at Malaysian celebrity Dato’ Aliff Syukri, following the unethical marketing of his beauty products on a television show in November 2018.

Netizens disparaged him, calling him “rich but stupid” and levelled other ad hominem attacks at him. While the celebrity in concern might have erred, the verbal aggression made towards him was excessive and uncalled for.

Unfortunately, such behaviour online is characteristic not just of impulsive youngsters, but of netizens of all age groups.

Damage control is difficult

At the moment, online hooliganistic behaviour is not always punishable by law or regulations.

In March 2018, The Guardian reported that a user in Sri Lanka posted on Facebook to “kill all Muslims, don’t even let an infant of the dogs escape”. The post was flagged by a netizen for its hate speech content. However, Facebook responded that the post “did not go against its community standards”, and merely asked the user to block the person who posted it.

If a comment of this nature cannot be taken down by relying on existing laws and regulations, it is worrying how society is ever going to be safe from online hooliganism.

Furthermore, if derisive and divisive comments stay online, this may give the impression that such remarks are harmless. This can pollute the online environment and influence others to engage in more online bullying.

In an incident this year involving a Go-jek driver and his female passenger, the parties were caught arguing on video over the route taken by the driver.

In the video, the lady then claimed that she was being kidnapped by the driver and suggested that the driver was being racist towards her. When the video went viral on the Internet, the reaction from the online community was massive.

What started out as netizens passing a judgment on who was at fault escalated into attempts to humiliate the female passenger with offensive memes of her circulating online.

In articles surrounding the Singapore-Malaysia maritime dispute, many netizens on both sides of the Causeway have also become aggressive, deriding each other’s countries and even proposing that war should take place between the two nations.

In this respect, the online community did not consider the consequences of their comments.

They have lost their ability to exercise good judgment and are instead aggravating situations that are already problematic and divisive.

For us to harness the good of social media, we need to stop being keyboard warriors.

We do not need to vent our frustrations online or make unnecessary comments that add fuel the fire. In the event of any social injustice, we should alert the relevant authorities instead.

It is also the role of community leaders to act on netizens’ misuse of social media. Political leaders have to propose laws against cyberbullying and work with social media giants to remove any derogatory or personally offensive comments. Religious leaders should encourage their followers to be kind and avoid being impulsive.

On a personal level, we should be highly conscious of our tendencies online, exercise more self-restraint and engage with others more calmly and with maturity.