From Internet Virality to Social Justice
In April 2017, a man and woman dubbed the “Toa Payoh couple” attained internet notoriety when a video of them verbally assaulting an elderly man over a table at a hawker centre went viral on Facebook. For a country of just over 5 million residents, the original video amassed over 3 million views and over 41,000 shares alone, discounting a cluster of other views and shares via reposts. In a matter of hours, reactionary internet users took to “CSI-ing” the perpetrators – colloquial forum lingo for intense profiling based on in-depth and corroborative internet searches – to identify the actors in the low-resolution video. (While local variants of “CSI-ing” borrow from hacker traditions of doxing, in which large amounts of private identifying content is released punitively, thus far practices of “CSI-ing” seem to be less intense and malicious, focused on small bytes of information such as a person’s full name, age, place of residence, and workplace).
Initially, the couple was misidentified as staff members of a bank, compelling enraged internet users to publicly denounce the services of the corporation and pressure the firm to fire the couple. Although the bank quickly clarified that the couple were not staff members, it was still up against seething backlash and fake rage-ridden feedback abounding on several social media platforms. The damage had been done.
As public outrage soared, this nugget of internet virality began to be picked up by for-profit populist tabloid websites, notable commentary blogs, and eventually, mainstream news outlets in digital and print formats. With the twin validations of internet-native virality and traditional media prominence, the police swiftly took action and the couple was arrested on the offence of causing a “public nuisance”. The internet cheered; vigilante activism struck again. The incident officially peaked and began to quickly tumble into obscurity – after all, the temporality of trends and controversies are accelerated in the age of the internet.
One week later, more precise updates about the couple were still streaming in on social media, albeit with less intensity. Fervent internet users posted updates on public forums, Facebook, and Twitter about – among other mundane information – the couple’s ages, marital status, professions, and grainy details of their business in the education sector. Close-up photographs of the couple – faces pixelated and otherwise – were unearthed from social media archives. Screengrabs of their now-private social media accounts also made their rounds. All the while, the story accumulated saturation fatigue: readers grew overwhelmed with minute packets of information to the point of disinterest, and the incident approached the death of its virality in late-April when the couple was arrested. However, public interest in the incident surged again in mid-August when the parties attended a court hearing and the woman tearfully expressed remorse to journalists on camera, only to instigate another wave of criticism on social media.
If this process feels all too familiar, it is because internet vigilantes and purveyors of public shaming blatantly rinse-and-repeat this cycle with controversial stories and situations that circulate online. Earlier in the same month, a Facebook video featuring an aggressive 70-year-old man propositioning gay sex and then slapping an American man on the MRT similarly went viral. It was recorded and uploaded by a fellow commuter in the same train cabin, and 1.5 million views and over 19,000 shares later, The Straits Times reported that the man was arrested for “causing public nuisance and voluntarily causing hurt”. Unlike the “Toa Payoh couple”, and perhaps in consideration of his old age, internet commentators did not “CSI” the elderly man to the same extent, but instead offered moralistic chidings of his assumed homosexual orientation and lack of maturity.
The efficacy of public shaming via internet virality – resulting in authoritarian intervention and social – enjoys a twisted track record in Singapore’s internet culture. Continue reading Public shaming, Peer surveillance, and the Profitability of internet drama.