The Power of Social Media

Does this person look familiar to you?

If you have been following the local news for the past couple of days, you would probably recognize the above person as Ms Amy Cheong, a former assistant director with NTUC who made the headlines for the wrong reasons last week when she posted a racist comment regarding Malay weddings on Facebook, a social utility for online networking.

Her disparaging comments resulted in her being widely criticised online almost instantaneously after she posted it. A Facebook page was even created, calling for her to be sacked. She was subsequently fired from her job[1] and shortly after was forced to leave Singapore for Australia, where she is a citizen, due to threats of violence she received.[2] This incident became the feature of local newspapers for several days, and even became global news, with several newspapers in various countries such as Australia, India and Malaysia reporting on this incident.[3]

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Social Media and its Pervasiveness

How could an opinion by someone who is not even remotely well-known receive so much exposure and draw such widespread opinion within a matter of hours, and totally turn her life upside-down within a matter of days?

Such a scenario would be almost utterly unthinkable a decade ago. These days, however, such instances of offensive online posts are not the least bit uncommon. Earlier this year in February, a scholarship holder from China studying at the National University of Singapore was fined $3000 and was ordered to complete three months of community service before he was allowed to graduate, after sparking an uproar due to an offensive blog post, in which he ranted that there were more “dogs than humans” in Singapore.[4]

One month following that incident, Nanyang Polytechnic student Lai Shumin made an expletive laden post on Twitter and Facebook, likening Indians to dogs after being displeased about having to share the same cabin as some Indians on the train, leading to her being condemned by netizens. She eventually issued a public apology before deactivating her Twitter and Facebook accounts.[5] Is this indicative of moral decay of people nowadays? Or is it simply a due to the greater ease self-expression brought about by the rise of social media and the internet?

We see controversial opinions on the topic of race all the time online, on forums, blogs and social media. We also see that regarding other similarly controversial topics such as sexuality, politics, religion and even Xenophobia in Singapore’s context (does anyone remember a certain Chinese Ferrari driver?), yet we do not see all of them being vilified in the same manner – one could not even fathom it happening on such a large scale to so many people. The reason is that most of these people are protected by a veil of anonymity afforded by the internet. Most posters on forums, chat-rooms and even blogs are just anonymous online personas; no one knows who they really are.

Amy Cheong, having posted her comment on a social networking site, could be said to be an unfortunate victim of circumstance; her careless comment, without the shield of anonymity that would have prevented her from being found out, let to her downfall, no less helped by the fact that information is propagated at lightning speed with the help of the internet – a fact that all of us should be familiar with.

Racism isn’t something shocking or new. For example, to put things in perspective, we see racism all the time in sports. Professional football has suffered from racism for a long time, and still does today. Just a few days ago, the Serbian Football Association was charged with racist chanting by spectators during a football match between England and Serbia.[6] Is it right for someone to be persecuted over a seemingly random racist comment? Did Ms Cheong deserve to be publicly vilified over her foul-mouthed rant, just because her identity is exposed? Did she deserve such a severe punishment?

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When one takes a closer look at this incident, it appears that her comments might have been taken out of context. Some might even argue that it might have just occurred in the heat of the moment, considering the fact that she was trying to get some rest when the incident occurred and she was faced with a noisy neighbourhood for the past few weeks due to funerals, karaoke sessions, weddings and quite obviously weddings.[7] There is no evidence that she is inherently racist, and her comment is quite possibly unintentional and pure circumstantial; it does not give an accurate representation of her values, beliefs and who she really is. It seems wrong to persecute her and cause her such a high level of distress over a singular and seemingly unintentional comment.

Utilitarianism

However, there is no doubt that the act in itself is obviously wrong; it brings almost no benefit to anyone, except perhaps aiding in the stress relief of the poster of the comment. On the other hand, with the comment being racist in nature, it insults the Malay community and is offends towards a large number of people.

If everyone starts posting nasty comments online whenever they are feeling cranky and want to relieve stress, the virtual realm would be filled with insults and foul-mouthed rants of the millions of internet users. You wouldn’t go a single day without having to endure the pain of reading the expletive-laden Facebook posts and Tweets by your friends. The world would be so much more miserable with all these negativity being circulated online. As a result, using rule utilitarianism to analyse this situation, this act is definitely wrong as well.

Overreaction?

In spite of all these, is such a strong reaction to her extreme, but nonetheless singular and quite possibly unintentional comment justified? In fact, Amy Cheong has even apologized for her comment shortly after she realized the folly of her ways [8], but nonetheless the apology was not accepted by many people, and condemnation of her actions failed to cease.

People have gotten away with doing far worse stuff. Prolonged vilification of a person and even her family who has already apologized for her wrongdoings and whose acts were probably unintentional and merely a result of her being tired and affected by the noise seems totally unfair and indeed seems a little over-the-top. This matter has been way blown out of proportion. All that time and effort spent criticizing her could have been better spent on other more constructive stuff. From a utilitarian viewpoint, such widespread condemnation of a single act is not desirable simply because of the wastage of time and effort. If every case generated that much controversy, one can imagine the massive loss of productivity to society.

She has already been duly punished and sacked for her actions, as well as apologized for her actions. For that I see no point in such prolonged and vicious personal attacks on her and her family; that is inherently wrong in itself.

In conclusion

While her act is inherently wrong, due to it being possibly unintentional, we should not be too quick to judge her character based on a singular comment, and I feel like she should definitely be given a second chance, especially since she has been punished and has shown remorse for her actions. With that being said, the massive reaction to this incident is largely unwarranted. The community has to take some responsibility for this saga as well.

The internet is a dangerous place without the veil of anonymity. Anything you post can be seen by others. In the information age, we all tend to take our freedom of expression online for granted, ignoring the presence of anonymous, faceless personas that lie in the shadows, waiting to strike at the first opportunity. We should all exercise due diligence and care and recognize the dangers when it comes to making remarks online, especially if we do not choose to do so anonymously, because, as we have witnessed, certain things we do online can potentially transcend the virtual realm, and a moment of folly can lead to a lifetime of regret.

Be smart, stay safe.

-Chun Leong

References:

  1. http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20121008-376209.html
  2. http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/union-official-flees-singapore-for-perth-after-tired-racial-rant/story-e6frg13u-1226493386783
  3. http://www.tnp.sg/content/amy-cheong-racist-saga-makes-world-headlines
  4. The New Paper, October 9, 2012
  5. http://sg.news.yahoo.com/%E2%80%98expletive-fb-post-about-indians-particularly-hurtful–wrong-and-completely-uncalled-for%E2%80%99.html
  6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/20012420
  7. http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20121009-376566.html
  8. http://sg.news.yahoo.com/amy-cheong-s-statement-of-apology.html

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