The State is Not Fragile

I’ve made this point several times before, but in the wake of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong suing blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation and demanding damages, the time has come again to argue that defamation suits are not the response.

This post is not about the merits of Ngerng’s argument. He alleged that Lee stole monies from the Central Provident Fund, by comparing how CPF funds are handled with the current City Harvest scandal. Having missed the original article before Ngerng took it down, I won’t comment on it. But I will say that from a policy perspective, defamation suits benefit no one.

The Question Remains

Whether Ngerng actually defamed Lee is ancillary to the issue. Many Singaporean bloggers, such as Leong Sze Hian and gdy2shoez of Everything Also Complain, are raising questions about CPF mechanisms and investments. Ngerng’s post is simple one of a long line of similar posts — the only difference being that Lee’s lawyer saw cause to lay down a defamation suit.

Lee may feel his reputation had been hurt. A defamation suit, with a demand for damages, is the government’s traditional means of addressing this. However, even if the offending speech could be erased and the speaker made to pay damages, the issues remain. No number of defamation suits and no dollar amount can satisfy these questions. If anything, the use of defamation suits makes the state look as if it has something to hide, and that it is actually trying to silence dissent.

The Face of the State

The government, through the Prime Minister, may feel it needs to protect its reputation — its ‘face’, so to speak. But people today are less likely to be view defamation suits from authority figures in a positive light. If aimed at a popular blogger like Ngerng, the state is courting political backlash by creating the impression that it is perpetuating a kind of soft tyranny, rolling over dissidents with the combined power of law and money.

There are signs of backlash already. Other Internet personalities are taking to social media to express their support for Ngerng. Some miscreant(s) vandalised several bus stops in support of Ngerng. I feel people are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry at a government that seems to have reneged on its promise of a ‘light touch’ on the Internet, and is throwing defamation suits and letters of demand at every possibility. Ngerng is simply the last of a long line of bloggers, from Alex Au to Temasek Review Emeritus, Tan Kin Lian to Vincent Wijeysingha.

The eyes of the people are on the state. How an action is perceived is just as important as its intended effect. The government may pride itself on doing ‘the right thing’ instead of pandering to populist demands, but what is ‘the right thing’ here? Is it choosing to break out the legal hatchetmen? Or rising above concerns of reputation and addressing the root questions?

Earning the People’s Respect

The state is not so fragile that a single comment would bring it down. The Prime Minister’s rule is not so tenuous that his authority is threatened by a single blog post. If Singapore were to ever reach that stage, then that Singapore would not be the Singapore founded on the ideals of democracy and meritocracy. But the first step to getting to that hypothetical Singapore is to suppress political opposition and define the boundaries of speech with every instrument of the law.

Openness is power. Transparency follows legitimacy. Dialogue empowers citizens. The proper response to defamation is not to try to shut it down straight away; such a defensive move can and will be interpreted as the state trying to silence opposition and to cover up reality. The more appropriate response is candour. Tan Chuan Jin discussed how CPF is used in Singapore on the Internet. This should have been the first response. As is, it is overshadowed by the drama over Ngerng’s case, and its impact muted.

The answer to offensive speech is more speech. Instead of trying to shut down offensive people, the government should instead identify and address the real issues. This means being frank with government mechanisms, making statistics publicly available, and discussing policies. It also means actually talking to opinion leaders, either online or offline, instead of shunning them or bringing down the hammer. Starting discussions and addressing issues earns respect. It builds face. It also opens up the marketplace of ideas, letting people understand and decide the truth and hopefully persuade detractors. This is a win-win situation for everybody.

If the state were indeed defamed, such an approach would show the people that there are no grounds for spurious allegations, preserving or even enhancing its moral standing. Ordinary people around the world have been doing this on the Internet for over a decade, and the majority of opinion leaders had had no need to resort to letters of demand to handle offensive speech. The use of lawsuits would, in the new age of new media, have to be a very deliberate approach, if indeed attempted at all.

The government, in the person of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, holds every advantage over a single lowly blogger. The only real harm the government faces is self-inflicted, harming its own reputation through legal demands. It’s time for Lee and the state to place their law firms on the burner, and to step out of their offices and start talking to the people who put them there.

Hashtags Won't Stop Barbarians

In the wake of Boko Haram’s mass abduction of girls in mid-April, activists have responded with a social media campaign. With the hashtags #saveourgirls and #bringbackourgirls, photos and short videos are circulating across the Internet to…

…Well, do what, exactly?

Raise awareness of the issue? It’s already a crisis of international proportions. The world is outraged. Nigeria is already locked in a bitter conflict with Boko Haram, and while this campaign might spur them on to redouble their efforts, they — being the primary victims — are painfully aware of what Boko Haram has done. The objective has long ago been achieved.

Call to action? I would almost believe that, but what action? The Nigerians are mobilising the military against the terrorists, but they’ve been at war with Boko Haram since 2009. The United States has pledged to assist Nigeria and has dispatched advisers — since 2011. #saveourgirls is not calling for greater international intervention, nor indeed is there any kind of call to action inherent in the campaign. What else is #bringbackourgirls doing?

Asking, nay demanding, Boko Haram to return the girls they have kidnapped?

Scientists would sooner find proof of a Christian Hell.

The echo chamber of slacktivism

Slacktivism is simple. Identify an issue, do up a signboard with a marker and a convenient piece of cardboard, take a photo of yourself with your sign, post it on social media with a witty hashtag, and watch the likes come rolling in.

Slactivism is also rewarding. Do it right, get your friends to get their friends to jump in on the movement, and soon enough you’ll be rolling in likes, shares and retweets. Bloggers and fellow travelers will jump on the bandwagon and create more content supporting you. With enough public attention, the playbook of democracy virtually ensures that local political leaders, and later international media and politicians, will give air time to your campaign. These are signifiers of social acceptance. Or societal approval. In people who desire such approval, this sort of attention would trigger cascades of hormones that stimulate the reward centre of the brain. It makes them feel good. And to keep on feeling good, all they have to do is propagate the campaign.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. But man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalising one. If a set of activities makes an airhead feel good, she is more likely to believe she is actually doing good — regardless of the outcome of her actions. This creates a self-reinforcing loop of behaviour, publicly meant to drum up attention for a cause, privately — even subconsciously — designed for emotional self-gratification.

I wouldn’t necessarily have any objections if, in the process of this campaign, actual, tangible objectives are achieved. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned campaign also works towards accomplishing objectives alongside the social marketing effort. Yet slacktivism makes social marketing, a means to an end, and turns it into an end into itself.

Funny thing about marketing: different audiences need different marketing techniques.

The real target audience

Who is #bringbackourgirls aimed at? The primary demographic will be English-educated people fluent with social media, most likely Western liberals, largely because they tend to be the primary inhabitants of social media activism spaces and will jump on a bandwagon like this. The secondary demographic is the international media, which wishes to grab and propagate the news of the day. #bringbackourgirls is crafted to appeal to these audiences, with emotive pictures, social media language, images portrayals of female disapproval and suffering, and a simple message.

But what will bring the girls back?

In military terms, Boko Haram has seized over 200 hostages, threatening to sell them into slavery. If the objective is to bring the girls back home, then legitimate authorities would need to identify the location of the hostages, and rescue them. In the medium term, to avenge previous atrocities and to neutralise a growing regional threat, Boko Haram needs to be eliminated. This means infiltrating their networks and sanctuaries, isolating them from their bases of support, discrediting their ideology and capturing or killing key personnel to disrupt the organisation’s operational capabilities. In the long term, to prevent groups like Boko Haram from emerging, the local inhabitants would have to identify the systemic causes that enable and empower the emergence of similar threats, and address them through holistic means.

Nothing I have seen of #saveourgirls will achieve this.

There is the forlorn hope that maybe #bringbackourgirls pressure Boko Haram into returning their hostages. But see above, scientists proving existence of Christian Hell.

Modern Western civilisation relies heavily on what is essentially structured peer pressure. Democracy is an exercise in mass approval or disapproval. Social media functions the same way, and so does slacktivism. If you approve or disapprove of something, create content to generate mass approval. And your right and ability to do this without being killed is guaranteed by the armed forces and the police.

But groups like Boko Haram come from a different perspective. Their name means ‘Western education is sinful’, and the cornerstone of their ideology is that interaction with the Western world is forbidden. Western cultural norms and expectations would not work on people who have closed their hearts and minds to them. This might yet have worked when Boko Haram was still working through peaceful means in the early days of its existence (2001-2008), but since the uprising in 2009, Boko Haram has transitioned into an armed terrorist group. They want to establish a country ruled by Sharia law, and do this by attacking Christians, bombing schools and police stations, assassinating government and prominent figures, and kidnapping Western tourists.

They have placed themselves outside the reach of Western cultural norms and memes. Slacktivism won’t speak to them. Neither will social media marketing aimed at generating Western disapproval against them. Quite simply, they don’t care about #saveougirls, and are not affected by it — except maybe in the twisted minds of their recruiters and propagandists, who will do what they can to portray it as a moral victory for the cause. (“See, our operation has agitated the West! We can reach across the seas and touch the minds of our enemies! Join us and you, too, will be strong enough to strike at the government and the far enemy!”)

Hashtags won’t stop barbarians. Analysis will. Planning will. Action will. If people are truly interested in stopping Boko Haram, then they have to step up and do actual work. It is hard, it will be difficult, and is nowhere near as immediately rewarding to the monkey brain as a constant stream of likes and retweets. Yet there is just one way to truly save the girls and bring them home — and slacktivism like this is not it.