Authoritarianism and the Digital Lynch Mob
Above: The Facebook page that attacks Alex Chang over his remarks on the Muslim cal for prayer in
ocial media has had a transformative effect on the way people
communicate and interact with each other. There have been many positive
effects of digital media such as the increasing democratization of issues.
People can use these platforms to make their views heard and mobilize for
The Arab Spring is one such example where social media such as Facebook
has been crucial in mobilizing outrage against an oppressive regime.
Closer to home, the internet has been crucial to countering state controlled
news in the Malaysian election in 2008 and the recent Singapore elections in
Unfortunately, as with any other tool, social media can be used for both
positive and negative purposes. A phenomenon, which is increasingly
Contrast to the use of social media for democratic discussion and reasoning,
the digital lynch mob seeks to only punish and humiliate. An early example
for this is the online media platform of The Straits Times
Many posters to this media act as ‘moral police’ posting examples of what
they considered to be ‘immoral’ behavior of Singaporeans. This often
includes couples kissing in public areas and people not giving up seats in
MRTs. These inane and petty acts of voyeurism are somehow disguised
under the respectable cover of ‘citizen journalism’ when a more appropriate
name for this platform should be SNITCH.
However, the relative effects of this public institutionalized bitching seem
relatively benign in comparison to the more recent examples of digital lynch
mobs. One example of such was Wang Peng Fei, a foreign Chinese student
studying at a local institution who did a comic act on YouTube.
The act grated some nerves and someone made a police report against
Wang. Panicking, he left Singapore and was subsequently expelled by his
school. Although his act could be said by some to be in poor taste, the
backlash against him could be said to be rather extreme, considering it was
not meant to be taken seriously and such acts are routinely done by local
But the worst case of the digital lynch mob so far has to be the case against
someone who made some remarks expressing his annoyance at the Muslim
call to prayer at a public place. His choice of words was extremely poor,
However, his words can be taken more of ignorance rather than spite, and
the issue is a broader one, regarding the place of religion in a secular society.
This is also not the first time MacDonald’s has been involved in such a
controversy, having withdrawn pig plush toys earlier in fear of offending
The response against him however is shameful on so many levels and
epitomizes the digital lynch mob. A website entitled ‘Ban Alex Chang from
all McD’s in Singapore’ was set up and soon got more than 10,000 likes. It
initial y ominously mentioned where he worked and promised to ‘make him
However, many Muslims themselves went on the site to condemn it. The
creators ignored the Ramadan spirit of patience and empathy and made it as
if having the azan
in a public secular space so everyone knew what time to
break their fast, was the most important thing.
The creators then realized they were offending their fellow Muslims and
restarted the page on a less confrontational note, but was now heavily
moderated. It also labeled those who disagreed with them as ‘racist’ or
But the worst was that having made a furor and attracted attention through
this storm in a teacup, the creators tried to take advantage of the situation
by promoting their business on the page. So it kicked up a fuss by stirring
what essentially could have been settled rationally and having done so,
sought to take personal advantage of the situation.
Above: The comments by the page’s moderator(s) silencing opposing sentiments and promoting their
Boon to authoritarianism
These three examples differ in their level of vindictiveness, but they
il ustrate the use of the anonymity of the web to ‘rouse’ public anger, a
These should be differentiated from democratic use of online media, in that
unlike more democratic usage that aims to educate the public on issues,
these only serve to punish and humiliate.
Take the last example. There are several ways to interpret this. One is the
issue of ignorance amongst non-Muslims about Muslim rituals. An
educative stance would have titled the site differently, perhaps as ‘Educating
non-Muslims about Ramadan’. This could have been more informative as a
site to educate people who would have been otherwise ignorant.
The issue could also have been about religion in a multicultural yet secular
space. It could also be a way to clear up non-Muslim misconceptions about
supposed ‘Muslim’ privileges, which many in the disenfranchised majority
The site itself may claim otherwise, but by choosing such a vindictive title, it
has closed off discussions and transmuted public issues into personal
vendetta and personal gain under the guise of ‘one people, one nation, one
Singapore’. The discerning public is not easily fooled.
Such a stance underlies a deeply authoritarian psyche. By desiring to
humiliate what is essentially a powerless target, it takes its moral authority as
a given and deems itself fit to act as judge, jury and executioner. This is
further reflected in the third example as it essentially deleted the deluge of
disgust and dissent posted by many irate Muslims and non-Muslims.
Those who harness the digital lynch mob are also essential y cowardly as by
putting the focus of attention on the victim, the accusers themselves deflect
scrutiny. In al three examples, we see the victim of the mob, but never the
This cowardliness also needs to be emphasized in that the target is generally
ordinary people, rather than the scrutiny of the powerful, which real
citizen’s journalism exposes. If anything, this digital lynch mob is an aid to
authoritarian governments by creating a panopticon gazing on the actions of
This is not to cal for the suppression of the Internet due to the digital lynch
mob. If anything, the last example shows that the denizens of the Internet
can police themselves through means of reasoning and moral suasion.
However, such cases of online harassment have to be taken to task in a just
manner. Acting anonymously should not equate with acting irresponsibly.
Those who would like to highlight issues should focus on principles rather
The digital lynch mob in context
The digital lynch mob however should also be put into its proper social
context. While not excusing the general incorrigibility of those who rouse
the lynch mob, the question of why the lynch mob can be so easily roused
An answer should take into account the general repressive climate offline.
As the discursive climate through traditional media, publications and general
associations is severely curtailed, issues and frustrations are taken online
The issue of Wang, for example, can be seen as outlet for frustrations by
locals against foreigners, and the issue of Alex can be seen as an outlet of
frustrations of a marginalized minority.
This is made worse as the recent ‘curry’ issue demonstrates the inability of
official bureaucratic mediators to use mandated idealized assumptions to
solve disputes. We cannot merely use the clichéd tropes of multiculturalism
An increasingly complex world needs greater room for critical discourse and
sensitivity to nuances offline to ensure that frustrations do not translate to a
This article was first published in The Online Citizen
, 21 August 2011.
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