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What’s Wrong With Online Vigilantism: A Conversation With Praveen From SG (not) Covidiots

What’s Wrong With Online Vigilantism: A Conversation With Praveen From SG (not) Covidiots

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Last week, in our short interview with SG Covidiots admin Ben Tay, he dismissed one of his critics Praveen Ramesh as a ‘troll’. 

No further explanation was given.

Praveen, an NTU undergraduate who runs the group SG (not) Covidiots, reached out to tell his side of the story. For the record: no, he is not a troll. He first found out about SG Covidiots after stumbling upon their content on Facebook. After calling out some of the posts for their lack of empathy, he found himself labelled an ‘infiltrator’, banned, and his posts deleted.  

In response, he created the page SG (not) Covidiots to fight what he calls their toxic rhetoric, and to share some of the kindness and empathy he found lacking. Praveen disputes SG Covidiots’s statement that its videos and images are ‘verified’, as well as its claim that racist or xenophobic content is moderated. 

We interviewed him and his fellow group admins Thomas and Rachel to hear their view on what’s wrong with SG Covidiots and public shaming.

How did you first learn about the SG Covidiots group?

Praveen: I run this other satirical Facebook group called ‘A group where we all pretend to be kiasu boomers’. Someone from the group shared a post from SG Covidiots. I joined as I was curious and wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about.

 

How did your interactions with the group go?

Praveen:  At first, I had very little impression on how the group was run or what they were posting. What really caught my attention was a post in which someone had snapped a photo of a bus driver with his mask down. The caption contained the bus license number, but nothing else. No context. No explanation.

To me this was very dangerous because it showed a lack of empathy and a lack of respect for our essential workers. For all we know, the bus driver had just removed his mask to catch his breath for a moment. But the poster was insistent that just because you have your mask down for a minute, it means you deserve to have your photo taken and shared.

It made me very angry, so I wrote a post about showing more empathy for older people. Quite a few members actually supported me, but my posts were deleted within an hour, along with other appeals for kindness made by friends who had also joined the group. 

Screenshot of the SG Covidiots group. Last post is made by an admin who is no longer present
SG Covidiots claims that they verify each and every image posted to the group, but your experience suggests otherwise?

Rachel: There was this post which showed a man running outside the Botanic Gardens, but there was no date, location or time mentioned. I commented saying it’s the Botanic Gardens, because you will know if you’ve been there.

One of the admins replied asking ‘how do you know?’, but I didn’t bother replying because another admin from SG Covidiots soon confirmed my statement. Yes, it is the botanic gardens.

I think this exposes a huge flaw in their system. If the admin cannot even verify if the photograph is taken in Singapore or where in Singapore it was taken, how can they verify anything else? How can they verify  the time and date? This creates a situation where you can get a lot of misunderstanding or misleading information being posted.

CECA refers to India - Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement
You previously claimed that SG Covidiots was racist and xenophobic, do you have any evidence to substantiate such a claim?

Praveen: Yes, that’s what we found most problematic about SG Covidiots. Once someone posts, the comments will begin hating on the person, often about things which have nothing to do with covid-19 or the mistakes they made.

One example, the post of the Indian lady from the wet market. Okay, I get it. She wasn’t wearing a mask, but the comments were saying things like ‘Toss her into the dormitories and let them enjoy’. ‘Report her’. ‘Revoke her Visa’. ‘Send her back to her home country’. ‘CECA is too lenient’. ‘$300 is like peanuts for them’. But how do we even know that she’s a foreigner? We’re just assuming based on the colour of her skin.

In another video, which showed two girls saying how they think it’s okay to be out and about, someone even took a screenshot and commented: ‘Send the girls into the dorms as tribute for the bangala’. The comment wasn’t even removed.

Thomas:  I think that while they’re trying to do the right thing, platforms like these just highlight how racist and xenophobic Singapore actually is. Even though we are a ‘multiracial’ country, there is still plenty of prejudice to go around.

The worst part is how the group enables many of its members to make its own rules. One image, for example, showed three girls who are obviously sisters jogging together. The post asked something along the lines of ‘how can this be allowed?’ when the rules clearly stipulate that families are allowed to exercise together.

 

To be fair, don’t government-approved platforms like STOMP more or less do the same thing?

Thomas: Yes, and it’s equally terrible. Just because it’s government-approved, doesn’t mean I agree with what either is doing.

But if you’re here to STOMP, just STOMP. Don’t pretend that you’re helping people or Singapore.

One example of the back and forth between extreme and more moderate voices in the group
Is it fair to suggest that SG Covidiots is racist or xenophobic just because some of the comments are? The group has 25k members, it might not be reasonable to filter out all ‘hateful’ comments.

 

Praveen: If SG Covidiots is a free-for-all discussion, then I might just close one eye. However, if they have the time to moderate away all of our comments calling them out on their mistakes, then they should have time to moderate the more hateful or racist comments. If you’re selectively moderating the content and deliberately banning the voices calling for kindness and restraint, then you are just promoting your own agenda.

At one point, more than 50 – 100 people from our Boomer impressions group had joined the SG Covidiots. Many of them were banned after making just one comment, often within an hour. If you have time to delete so many comments, then don’t tell me you cannot delete the racist stuff.

Rachel: Their Facebook cover literally says “#Staythe****Home” and it sets the tone and attitude for the group. If it was something more positive like “#Stayhome”, this would have set a vastly different tone for the posts in the group. 

Praveen: Exactly. We all made the groups Sg (not) Covidiots. It’s a public group and anyone can join, but we have not had a single negative or toxic comment. As an admin or moderator, you can set the tone. It’s your platform and you’re telling me you cannot control what happens on it? I call bullshit on that.

It sounds like quite a lot of people joined the SG Covidiots group. Was this a coordinated effort on the part of your Kiasu Boomer group?

Praveen: It was a collective effort. Many of us were sharing our frustrations and grievances regarding the group and how we were being censored and blocked for speaking up against the hateful rhetoric. I think this in itself spurred others to join in. (someone mentioned: ‘they can’t block us all’). However, as admins, we did realise how angry some of the members were feeling which is why we created SG (not) Covidiots to allow people to ‘fight’ back with positivity instead of stooping to their level. 

 

What about blatant cases like the auntie who spat on a KFC staff member? Shouldn’t such criminal behaviour be filmed and called out for what it is?

Thomas: I think it depends entirely on how you’re using the information. If there’s a street fight and you’re filming it to show the police, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. However, I think most fast food outlets have CCTV cameras to protect their employees and surveillance is pretty much everywhere in Singapore. I can’t say if people should never film, but they shouldn’t do it for shares or karma or virality. 

Praveen: We’ve seen the delivery video of the Grab driver who lost his temper at the bubble tea cashier, right? The guy lost his job and he came out on social media to apologize. 

And that’s the danger of putting his video online. There were actually two videos [of the incident]. One was focused on the Grab driver, while the other was focused on the service staff who had actually provoked the whole incident. After that, people went after her instead. So it shows that, within one incident, depending on who’s filming, two very different stories can emerge. It shows that we cannot rely on the video. We should fall back on the system and the law, which is generally quite reliable in Singapore.

For example in Hong Kong, my friend pointed out that different news sites with different agendas will use the same source, but they’ll chop it up and edit the relevant portions. If they’re more pro-police, they will show the protestors being horrible. If they’re pro-protest, they’ll show the opposite. 

Given the unprecedented circumstances, do you think there’s a place for mutual surveillance? I.e. People monitoring each other’s behaviour during the circuit-breaker, but without necessarily filming or taking pictures?

Thomas: In that case, yeah, I think that’s just being a good citizen. The problem with taking videos is that it lets people play the police. Did you watch the video of an Indian man who was harassed with questions like ‘do you want me to fine you $300?’. The person filming was playing the police, he was enjoying a power trip

Praveen: For me, I think mutual surveillance does more good than harm, but it’s the way you do it. Why can’t we just go up to the person and inform them? 

Thomas: I think one post sums it up. There’s a public shaming post with the caption: ‘I am just doing my duty. I am just protecting my people’ Another comment replied: ‘You are just a person with a camera, not doing much.’

So is it fair to say that you agree with SG Covidiot’s aims, but not their means?

Thomas: Can you clarify, what are SG Covidiot’s aims. I just want to be clear before I answer.

To quote Ben Tay’s statement: “For the circuit breaker to be effective, we all have to take it seriously. In the beginning, there were many flouting the rules and the OneService app was not launched yet then. The authorities and enforcement officers do not have eyes everywhere either. We hoped the community could be where the public can come together to fight the problem together and encourage the public to comply with the measures.”

Thomas: Sure, I think they might be trying to do good. But their way of doing good is not right. They’re doing more harm than good. They are perpetuating a toxic culture which has existed for a very long time with STOMP, and which continues to exist because many people still read the platform even today.

Praveen: What they draw us to, is a way bigger issue than covid-19. Tackling covid-19 is quite straightforward. You stay at home, wear a mask and don’t go out

By creating this whole group with 26K members, and so much racism within, you’ve created an even bigger issue than the virus. Today mentioned the doxxing laws. Asiaone mentioned the negativity they created. It’s really shown how a lot of Singaporeans are secretly racist and xenophobic.

Comment posted on 3/5/2020
Endnotes

As of May 2nd, you can still find a great many comments in the SG Covidiots which are obviously xenophobic or racist. One comment reads: ‘Fucking china man’, while another other called for an Indian rule-flouter to be ‘sent home’.

However, there has also been significant backlash from within the group itself, with many members questioning the motives and intentions of those who choose to film and share. Whatever you might think of online vigilantism, it’s hard to deny that Praveen is right. SG Covidiots has raised a much bigger issue of how we should deal with public shaming and online vigilantism in Singapore. Covid-19 might eventually pass, but it’s hard to say if we’ll ever be rid of the STOMP culture.

What do you think of both the mentioned Facebook groups? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Pan Jie Staff writer