The Straits Times says

When online site plumbed the depths

The mishmash offered by website TR Emeritus would not ordinarily warrant wide attention. But in publishing an untrue and tasteless story on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, TRE opened itself to much condemnation. The episode is trebly deplorable because it posted a falsehood (that Mr Heng's medical expenses are being paid by taxpayers), it did not bother to undertake basic checks, and it refused to do the right thing afterwards. Instead, its facile defence was that its terms of so-called service give it the right to republish any material submitted to it in any format.

While TRE said it "apologises for publishing the incorrect comment", it did not acknowledge the social harm caused when people are so callous that they turn on someone who serves the public wholeheartedly, despite the fact that he remains in need of medical care. Many would agree that this is not the kind of society Singaporeans would want to see reflected even in social media which has few standards. Yet there is little to indicate that social norms and ways of stopping falsehoods in their tracks are occupying the largely faceless administrators of TRE, as a result of this case. Instead, their statement focused on absolving themselves of the responsibility to ensure that material facts are checked.

In suggesting falsely that Mr Heng, who had a stroke last month during a Cabinet meeting, was receiving top-notch care and recuperating at the taxpayer's expense, one might question both TRE's motive as well as its judgment. No political figure is exempt from scrutiny, of course, but Mr Heng is widely accepted as having worked hard on major projects, including the Future Economy. In making him the target of lies, TRE revealed an inability to exercise proper judgment and due diligence.

Reliability is not the mainstay of social media, of course, as it is essentially an online variant of coffee shop talk, amplified by the echo chambers of cyberspace. Hearsay, half-truths, opinion masquerading as information, and ideological propaganda are feral features of this domain. Yet, if those behind sociopolitical websites make little effort to uphold even basic tenets - for example, opinions are free but facts are sacred - a collective slide to the bottom will be inevitable.

Ultimately, it is the reading public that can help determine the direction of social media in Singapore. People will shortchange themselves if they do not question what is uttered in cyberspace and hold websites to higher standards. And operators who profess to offer a "service", like TRE, must ponder a Facebook user's sardonic response to the whole affair: "It is not their fault (if they) publish something untrue, but the writer's. Well done, well done. Now, who will believe what is on their platform?" Credibility is one golden rule, another is sensitivity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'When online site plumbed the depths'. Print Edition | Subscribe