Why It Matters

Mind what you say online

In cyberspace, people say things they might not ordinarily say to another person in real life.

The anonymity and invisibility afforded by the Internet remove inhibitions.

Netizens say anything they want because there are no apparent real-world consequences for making throwaway toxic comments on a post or a news item that comes up on their feed or some other forum. After all, the people featured in those posts are just a name or a face on the screen. And who knows if the names and faces offered are real.

Last week, a judge drove home the message that, beyond the thumbs ups and the emoticons, online comments do have a real impact on real people.

In an unusual move, Judicial Commissioner Aedit Abdullah took netizens to task for comments made on online platforms which caused distress to a rape victim in the case before him. He did not specify the nature of the comments, which he said were disrespectful not only to the court process, but also to the victim. Such comments will discourage victims of offences from coming forward, he said.

To be fair, the judge also advised against passing remarks on accused persons, who are deemed innocent until proven guilty.

Everyone has the right to have his day in court, and it is ultimately for the court to hear both sides and weigh the evidence before coming to a decision.

For the ubiquitous netizen, judgment is passed swiftly. Scroll, type, click, close window. Perhaps revel in the upvotes or likes for a savage comment.

For a victim of a serious crime like rape, thoughtless comments made on the fly could be as painful as being assailed again.

The devil's advocate might argue that victims should just save themselves the grief by staying away from online comments. But when flippant remarks become normalised behaviour, adding to the stigma of rape, genuine victims - who may well be more than a name on the screen - may hesitate even further to seek justice.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline Mind what you say online. Subscribe