The decade that I’ve spent (so far) in Singaporean civil society has been an enriching one. There have been multiple steep learning curves, but I count myself lucky to have this opportunity to gain valuable experience and pick up new skills, some of which I’d never have imagined acquiring before I got into all this.
One of these unexpectedly developed capacities? Dealing with trolls/trolling.
Outspoken Singaporeans are used to getting slammed as noisy troublemakers, keyboard warriors, armchair critics and bleeding heart liberals. But outspoken Singaporean women, especially, are served a special brand of online trolling and abuse—one not just laced with outrage about one’s politics or ad hominem attacks, but also topped off with the rotten garnishes of sexism and misogyny. I wrote about this in 2016.
(Screencaps of comments from some years ago.)
In recent years, on top of the HardwareZone and Sammyboy forum sexism, there’s been an emergence of accusations of treason and betrayal, branding me (sometimes alongside fellow writers or activists) a traitor to Singapore and stoking nationalist sentiment. These accusations aren’t always, but have sometimes been, triggered by comments from members of the ruling party. Previous issues of this newsletter addressed this: here and here.
(Screencaps of Facebook comments from 2018–2020.)
I’ve been asked about this a number of times over the years, so in this special issue of We, the Citizens I’ll cover how I react to and deal with such online abuse.
First off: acknowledge their impact
When this sort of thing happens, there’ll be plenty of people who will say “just ignore them”, or “don’t feel the trolls”. This is usually with the best intentions, and for the most part, these people have a point. And if that works for you, then that’s great—what I’m writing here is not meant to be prescriptive about how one should deal with nastiness online, because everyone has different perspectives, personalities, conditions, etc. to consider.
What I’ve learnt, though, is that there’s no need to pretend that these comments don’t have an effect when they do. There is no shame in saying that seeing these things make you feel bad, or discouraged, or afraid. It is by design that they make you feel these things, and it’s not a sign of weakness if you do. Acknowledging the impact of these comments can help to think more clearly and more honestly about what you need and what you want your next steps to be. And if you need to speak to someone about it—be it a family member or a friend or a counsellor or a therapist—please do.
A lot of the time, these comments don’t bother me too much—it shouldn’t be this way, but they’ve kind of become normalised as part and parcel of what I do, and I’ve grown a thick skin when it comes to this sort of thing. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not affected by them at all: sometimes, when they’re particularly targeted, when they originate from people with power and/or significant followings, when they cause worry to my loved ones, when they are putting words in my mouth and spreading falsehoods about me, my views, and my friends… it does leave its mark.
The sum effect of this trolling is about making you (and others who are watching you) feel like you’re isolated, like you’re the one that’s wrong because no one agrees with or supports you, that you’re out of line, out of step, out of bounds. It makes you doubt yourself, and question everything you’re doing. And because you know how much time and energy this sort of thing saps from you, you might begin to self-censor so that you can avoid this sort of backlash.
And sometimes, when the vitriol ratchets up, it can even make you feel unsafe. As Cherian George mentioned in a recent post, there are examples around the world demonstrating that one’s physical safety could be seriously at risk—all it takes is one person who decides to take matters into their own hands. I don’t worry about this a lot, but it’s still a concern in my mind, especially when I know that there’s been at least one post online sharing where I’ve been seen in public (there might be more, I just haven’t seen them myself).
Bad faith comments don’t deserve your attention…
I used to feel like I should respond to every comment about or directed at me, because I should make the effort to build bridges and engage and participate in conversation with the same openness that I expect of our political leaders.
I do still think that openness and engagement are good things, but I’ve also learnt that it’s helpful and important to recognise when remarks or comments are made in bad faith.
Bad faith comments do not deserve the time and energy involved in crafting good faith responses. The other person isn’t interested in engaging or listening to your point of view; it’s simply the online version of someone knocking on your door or walking up to you in public and hurling abuse or nonsense at you. And, just as it’s your right to shut your door or walk away, you have the right to exit or shut down the situation.
Bad faith actors are a resource suck to engage with, because they aren’t interested in navigating differences or in understanding, and anything you say is just feeding them more material to twist and use against you.
…but think of the “lurkers”!
I do, however, occasionally respond to people even when I feel like they’re not looking to engage in good faith, because I’m mindful that for every person commenting, there are likely to be others who aren’t commenting, but are paying attention to what’s being said.
These observers might not agree with the trolls—and might even think they’re distasteful and toxic—but there might occasionally be some points, here and there, that resonate with them. For example, there might be some questions that they have, or points that they’re unclear about, only they aren’t comfortable with wading into the fray to ask them.
With this in mind, I do, from time to time, pick some comments to respond to, even if I don’t think the original commenter is all that interested in hearing what I have to say. But if I can, by responding in as calm and clear a manner as possible, help address some of the questions and concerns that others might have, then I think it’s worthwhile. Sometimes I also write blog posts or Facebook posts that respond more generally, just so I can cover more ground, and also have a link to point people to if certain things come up again and again.
What about taking legal action?
Okay, this is the bit that I haven’t fully made up my mind about. Some of the comments and trolling I’ve received over the years likely do fall under categories covered by defamation and other laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act (and yes, I’ve had lawyer friends tell me from time to time that there’d be a case for this or that).
I haven’t gone down this route (yet), because I’m still trying to weigh the pros and cons of the situation. On the one hand, it could be good to take a clear stand against smear campaigns and trolling, and perhaps that would make people think twice about such attacks. (As Cherian has also pointed out, and I have experienced, there isn’t much hope in expecting political leaders to set the tone by speaking out against such harassment.)
On the other, taking legal action would require even more time and energy, and likely money. And it could open me up to more bad faith arguments, such as accusations of hypocrisy—“hah look she says she cares about freedom of speech now she is suing people”—that deliberately obscure the difference between a powerful politician with platform getting his high-powered lawyers to sue political opponents and bloggers, and of a private citizen (albeit one with some public voice) taking action against smear campaigns. Efforts to stem trolling on one end could simply open the floodgates to trolling on another because, as I’ve said, these are bad faith actors who aren’t interested in principles, and aren’t going to fight fair.
So liddat lor.
This is, in a nutshell, the process (of sorts) that I go through when dealing with nonsense online. I hope most of you will never have firsthand experience of this (although I know it’s too late for some of you already). In an ideal world, none of us would ever have to develop such skills, because this is behaviour that is abusive and unfair and no one should have to put up with.
To pre-empt responses like “but what about the opposition supporters?”… yes there has been and is bad behaviour on multiple sides. I’ve seen some PAP politicians called horrible, sexist, racist names. This should also not be condoned; we should push back against sexism, racism, and bad faith attackers regardless of their political (or any other) views.
I have some experience with anti-PAP trolls and bad faith comments, although not as much. But I daresay the suggestions I’ve presented in this issue work in any direction.
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