Tuesdays at Ipster Cafe: Social Media is Starkiller Base

Jan 12, 2016 11.03AM |

by Joshua Ip

PERHAPS I’m too optimistic, or have succumbed to the wave of rose-tinted nostalgia that has suffused Singapore mass-hallucination-style in the last year.

See, I remember the Internet as a place where two people could settle their differences through the rites of honorable combat – a verbal duel on a Facebook wall. Once a gauntlet was thrown down, both parties engaged in the formal dance – the boundaries of the debate were clearly circumscribed, points were scored for art and skill, and the party who was provoked into ungentlemanly jabs below the belt – i.e. the ad hominem – was shamed into a concession. One could not argue with the facts of logic, and the results of the joust were clear for all to see – even if they had fought each other to a draw, the two parties could still invoke the ancient ritual of “agree to disagree” and walk away with their heads held high.

But as the reach of social media and the possibility to share and re-share grew beyond the ability of the average poster to foresee, the duels began to take on a bit more of a wild wild West flavor. New challengers began to arrive mid-bout, and many more refused to balk at playing dirty or changing the rules halfway. Duels devolved into multi-player slugfests spanning multiple threads, with grudges from weeks before being brought up again to mark a particularly unruly avatar. In essence, King of Fighters had become World of Warcraft.

Somewhere along the line, it became commonplace to see a young troll with a shock of wild hair prancing along, gleefully casting ‘Spell of Religiously Offensive Youtube Video’ and drawing a huge swarm of angry mobs in his wake. On the other side of the battlefield, you’d spot a glossily-armored ‘Paladin of Media Literacy’ swinging his ‘Hammer of Fox News Obnoxiousness’, eventually being swarmed by a horde of liberal barbarians. A mid-level orc attempts to ambush a noob with his ‘Apprentice Sim Lim Scammery’, and finds himself instead obliterated by ‘Giant Fireball of Pizza’ from a master-level ‘Feedback Wizard’. Or a savvy family of ‘Master Design Mage’s’ casting ‘Spell of Crying Child’ (+20% Public Outrage) to great success against the ponderous bureaucrats of the Gallery.

There are no longer any rules. There is no longer any consideration for scale, for significance, or for what we should occupy our time with. Minding one’s own business is a concept that has been relegated to the 20th century because everybody’s business is now everyone else’s business.

Instead of considered debate, we have a giant death ray of righteous outrage that leaves a blazing trail across the Internet every day. It can’t be turned off, and it needs to be fed – all that low-level irritation combined with a certain level of ennui at one’s boring existence has to go somewhere. Why not let the energy go into an angry comment about some horrible ang moh who beat up a taxi uncle? Or the next day, a furious share about some despicable taxi driver who tried to con a gullible tourist into turning off the meter? Does it matter if the two incidents are the same? As long as I’m part of the good guys, or the defenders of our nation’s pride, or the ones passing judgment from 30,000 feet based on a photo or a video clip?

We have built a Death Star, or if you prefer, a Starkiller Base. In doing so, we failed to realise that the beam of death can turn on anyone of us at any moment. There is no governing body, no court, or due process that controls who is incinerated. Just a sense of anger, raging like a consumed sun. Whether it is the Filipino worker in Tan Tock Seng or the Minister posting an ill-advised selfie, they can see their doom slowly approaching, just like the people of the Hosnian system watched the red glow of Starkiller Base’s attack searing its way towards them – each share, each like, each angry “wtf” spreads like a virus. You can take down the post or close your Twitter or get your PR department to submit a “we are looking into this” statement, but the ray still burns inexorably towards you and your good name.

How did we get here? Maybe Xiaxue, Queen of Blogs, crossed the line first. When she first reposted the unflattering personal pictures of men, who made offensive comments about her, and their families, half the internet cheered. A few wondered if she had set an uncomfortable precedent. Then notorious troll ‘SMRT(Ltd) Feedback’ doxxed Sim Lim scammer Jover Chew for cheating a poor Filipino of his money (Doxxing refers to the act of publishing private information about an individual on the Internet – in this case, his phone number, address, private photos, and the contact information of his girlfriend.) He was harassed by the Internet into closing his shop within days. From then on, the kid gloves were off. Any foreigner who made a comment about Singaporeans on his personal Facebook, or private WhatsApp group, or outside a pub, or basically anywhere that could be recorded, screenshotted, and shared – was at risk of having his employer contacted, his wife’s pictures dissected, his children screamed at in school, and having angry Singaporeans or confused pizza delivery boys appear outside his door.

Certainly, there is right and wrong. Every angry person on the Internet can tell you that. Right needs to be done, which chiefly means beating up people who are wrong. But there is far too much stupidity and idiocy in the world for even the Internet to police. If each one of us looks into our private moments or quiet conversations, I’m certain we can all extract something offensive or obnoxious enough to go viral. All of us are guilty of doing something stupid. The Death Star could happen to any one of us. And even if you are a saint who’s never said an offensive thing in your life, one only has so many hours in a day, in a month, a year, a lifetime – how many of those do you want to spend making some poor social media intern tear his hair out because he has made a poorly-thought-through post on the corporate page? Why should we activate the Death Star on someone’s stupidity when it can be sorted out with a quiet conversation (or Jedi mind trick)?

The Death Star floats through space, its planet-annihilating ray constantly blazing a path through the universe. This one has no convenient exhaust port or thermal oscillator to fire a proton torpedo down. The only way to shut it off, is, ironically, to shut up. Stop sharing. Stop commenting. Stop reacting, even. If you really feel the need to release your anger somehow (even though anger is the path to the dark side), draw your lightsaber. It’s called a private message. Go have it out with the person, one on one, the old way, the respectful way, the controlled way. The worst thing you could lose there is a bit of your pride. And we could all do with a bit less of that these days.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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