You wouldn’t start an argument with a stranger on the street (or maybe you would). However these days, many people do so on social media, sometimes with professional internet trolls.
Internet troll farms are no laughing matter. On 3 August, the Ministry of Home Affairs reported that new, legislative safeguards against rising “disinformation and sentiment amplification” were under review.
For decades, Singapore has remained insulated from the social unrest facing the wider world. Will the strategic provocations of internet troll farms be our ultimate undoing?
From under the bridge to online
Disinformation is now a fact of life, and in response to heightened policing, troll farms in locales such as Russia, Ghana, and the Philippines have become mind-bogglingly sophisticated. So sophisticated, that in a ‘60s spy caper-style development, trolls these days must even contend with whistleblowing bystanders and competing trolls.
In this paranoid ecosystem, new-gen trolls grow adept at playing attack dogs, cheerleaders, or fear-mongering caricatures of both political extremes. Allegiances aren’t really the point anymore.
While they (and their clients) don’t always push a defined agenda, troll farms’ basic objective is to sow discord and create an atmosphere in which apathy or hate can flourish and be exploited.
Farm honchos are, as a general rule, unbothered by scruples and motivated solely by profit. In the most chilling excerpt of The Washington Post’s troll farm report:
“[Unnamed Filipino troll farm operator] is hoping for global expansion, even if he starts small by exploring the market in regional countries such as Singapore. “Why not?” he challenged.”
The Little Red Dot: a perfect target?
During Singapore’s recent GE — its first in the global ‘post-truth’ era — social media exploded with commentary. Race relations and LGBTQ+ issues proved particularly contentious. So contentious that zero mention was made of the latter in any party manifesto, despite post-election headlines about demonising portrayals — positive depictions are explicitly prohibited — of the local queer community.
Most Singaporeans’ caginess around hot-button topics has a long precedent. In early post-Colonial Singapore, strict social cohesion was vital against race riots and a collapsing Federation of Malaya. Dissent in both good and bad faith were perceived as threatening national security; however, things may finally be changing.
A year following the censure of anti-racist rappers Preetipls and Subhas Nair, a criminal investigation was opened into opposition political candidate Raeesah Khan. Her social media posts on race and class privilege were cited as “promoting enmity between different groups”. Public backlash against the investigation was swift.
Post-GE2020, Singapore’s government conceded that the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ discourse had shifted. Some worry that evolving social values bear traces of foreign interference, particularly that of Americanised ‘woke’ culture, however NTU sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu counters: “ideas of justice and equality are not Western, but universal ideals even reflected in our national pledge.”
The Singaporean government, for its part, is tackling disinformation through the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. POFMA’s controversial implementation aside, regulation of sensitive content has overlooked comment sections, where — seeking alternatives to a restrained press — curious citizens have turned for discourse.
Singapore stands at a fragile, possibly wonderful turning point, although recent events prove we’re neophytes in increasingly open political discussion. Because of this, the troll farms may already lie in wait for us, eager to divide and conquer.
No comment (?)
Although we treat them as disposable, internet comments are not meaningless. Studies suggest that while commenters are a minority of social media users, more than a third of people read the comments for additional context. They can also skew perceptions of information’s quality and trustworthiness by as much as 8%.
Because comments are less likely to be scrutinised, even good-faith participants don’t always apply critical thinking. At worst, this can lead to the entrenchment of flawed or dangerous reasoning.
So… all comments from dubious internet strangers are bad, right?
The picture isn’t so straightforward. Anonymity can provide questioning individuals a safe space to explore new ideas, increasing engagement and intellectual risk-taking.
As a highly out-of-character experiment, I called out some likely trolls I observed on one of Wake Up Singapore’s(a popular, anti-establishment content maker) Instagram posts. I was besieged by some of my targets, as anticipated, but also questioned by a few curious onlookers.
It’s hard to know for certain whether a given account is a paid troll, or a private citizen with a ‘burner’ account used to air opinions inconsistent with their primary social media. However I quickly noticed that the most vicious, overtly troll-like of my critics (who even browsed my profile to gather transphobic ammo) only engaged with me within the comments, in full view of others they could influence and discredit me before.
The really interesting stuff was sliding into my DMs. A handful of anonymous accounts reached out, clarifying that while there were overlaps between them and the paid trolls, their intentions were not ill-natured.
Despite our divergent political leanings, these individuals were open and respectful; I even walked away with a better appreciation of our differences. So, some good can come of chatting (responsibly) to strangers online, but it’s clear that comment sections as they currently exist don’t work.
Many news outlets are turning towards comment moderation, with promising results. In a study where journalists engaged directly with readers in the comments, hate/trolling speech was reduced by as much as 17%.
Moderation may be crucial in tempering pugnacious bigots (who, ironically, tend to cry “thought police!” and “cancel culture!” loudest) and amplifying the already marginalised or vulnerable, despite the daunting expense and effort demanded.