Half of 1,000 S'poreans polled have experienced online harms

Nearly half of over 1,000 Singaporeans polled have personally experienced online harms, the bulk of whom were aged 15 to 35, a survey has found.

Online harms include being stalked virtually and cyber bullied, and befriended by people who used fake identities.

But about 43 per cent of them said they will not take action against online harms because they think it will not make a difference.

These were among the findings of an online survey conducted by Sunlight Alliance for Action (AfA), a cross-sector alliance that tackles online dangers, shared by senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Dr Chew Han Ei, on Friday .

Not taking action to report perpetrators, however, will further the harm caused, said speakers at the webinar on online harms experienced by young people. The panel featured representatives from academia, students, as well as the legal and technology industries.

"Bystanders play a very important role in terms of supporting people who might be experiencing online harms, especially in very public platforms such as Instagram," said communication and technology professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Calling out your perpetrators, the people who are stressing you and who are causing you harm - that actually gives the victims that sense of strength, that sense of validation that they are not alone in this world," she added.

Citing rapper Kanye West's threats to media personality Kim Kardashian after their divorce, Prof Lim noted that it was "troubling" many fans made comments on Instagram egging the celebrity on in cyber-bullying his ex-wife.

Encouragement and validation of harmful behaviour sets a dangerous norm for future perpetrators to continue inflicting harms on their victims, Prof Lim warned.

Reporting harmful online behaviour to technology companies will also help fine-tune algorithms on social media platforms to detect similar incidents, she said.

In his presentation of the survey, Dr Chew observed it was also "concerning" that about 57 per cent of the respondents are unaware or only slightly aware of where to seek help from.

SafeNUS president Nisha Rai agreed, adding that many victim-survivors of sexual harassment who have consulted the student-led group based in the National University of Singapore (NUS) did not know about reporting processes and how to track down perpetrators with concealed identities.

Victims should, for a start, immediately try to gather evidence, or it may get deleted while they deliberate over what to do, said lawyer Simran Toor.

They can report their cases to the respective online platforms or to the police.

The co-founder of the Women in Practice committee in The Law Society added that beyond screenshots, witnesses such as friends who may have seen the post or were part of the chat group can be called upon to prove a victim's case.

Even if evidence is based solely on a victim's account, this does not mean there is no hope, she added, noting that many cases of sexual assault and rape often involve conflicting oral accounts.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann, who co-chairs Sunlight AfA, said in her closing remarks at the webinar that the findings will provide a baseline for understanding whether digital safety for women and girls here will improve over time.

To further support victims of online harms, Ms Sim on Friday also launched the Sunlight AfA website (sunlightafa.org), which has resources to address online dangers and risks and updates on the alliance's events.

"We recognise that the task of tackling online harms has to go beyond legislation and policies," she said.

"It is equally critical to equip Singaporeans with the knowledge and skills to confidently navigate the digital space."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2022, with the headline Half of 1,000 S'poreans polled have experienced online harms. Subscribe