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The Straits Times says

When social media turns antisocial

The jail sentence imposed on a seditious Filipino will help to underscore how seriously Singapore treats even casual efforts to poison social life. There is reason to exercise caution. Social media technology has increased the ease and speed at which a single individual is able to offend large numbers with careless abandon. Platforms like Facebook enable and encourage self-expression and even exhibitionism in ways that test long-held norms like the civility of interactions.

The medium is the message was the pithy phrase communication theorist Marshall McLuhan used to convey how the social effect of technological innovations can be more significant than the actual content, which might be hardly worth remembering like trash talk. For example, social restraint diminishes in online communications which are faceless and thus lacks the signals that traditionally prompt people to avoid offensive speech. When the subject of such comments is sensitive, as are race, religion and nationality in the Singapore context, the impact on relations between diverse groups can be considerable.

That is why despite criticism from some quarters, the authorities here have not hesitated to enforce old laws such as the Sedition Act against this new threat to harmony and stability. It is worth noting that the section of the Sedition Act which makes it an offence "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population" lay dormant from its inception in 1948 until 2005. But in the past 10 years, no fewer than 16 people have been investigated either under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code for race- and religion-related offences.

This represents an effort to hold the line in a virtual world where extreme views are increasingly tolerated and even cheered. In Europe, anti- immigrant nationalist parties stoke xenophobia. In the region, too, race and religion are exploited for political advantage from time to time. Singapore cannot afford to go down the same route. It falls on the authorities to keep the social peace, even though liberal segments of society might keep up the pressure for fewer controls on people's freedom to express themselves. To remain credible in its enforcement action against those who sow discord, the state must continue to be seen as impartial. Sedition laws must not be misused against one's political opponents, as has been the temptation elsewhere.

While online sharing platforms have in many ways brought people closer, they also magnify behaviour that is antisocial and divisive and multiply the effects of thoughtless comments based on differences of race, religion and nationality. Hence, users of social media should not take lightly the scope to connect with large numbers with just a few keystrokes. The medium is a loaded message.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'When social media turns antisocial'. Print Edition | Subscribe