On 23 March 2015, I published this post cataloging very early social media reactions to the passing of a prominent political figure in Singapore. In my usual fashion, I posted the link to the post on my personal and work Facebook accounts (both private but with the post marked visible to all), and my public Twitter account, where hashtags were omitted.
Then the post went viral in Singapore.
And viral hate started streaming in.
Less than twelve hours later, I decided to get up in the middle of the night to add a lengthy preamble to signpost some things to readers.
In my thesis, I study a group of actors on social media known as ‘commercial bloggers’ in the vernacular, ‘influencer markerters’ in the industry, or ‘social media microcelebrities’ in academia. For this reason, I am no stranger to viral hate, having observed, catalogued, and analyzed developments in real time whenever a spat/controversy/saga/war breaks out. I have also spent time with many of these social media actors in interviews and as a participant observer to learn about their experiences and reflections on being caught up in viral hate.
Being on the other side, however, was a new thing altogether.
I mused to a fellow PhD colleague that I felt like I was acquiring more ethnographic authority to redraft my thesis chapter on blog wars, Tweet wars, and Internet hate. At least I could find productive humour in all of this, right?
More comments started pouring in on all fronts. I took to proofing my social media, and rejected a bunch of friend and follower requests from strangers on various platforms. I am aware and conscientious of my conduct online, and so was not particularly concerned, but wanted to be careful.
I was living in GMT+1, going viral in a GMT+8 timezone. Naturally, some comments stayed in the moderation queue for longer than the commenters might have liked. There were a handful of follow-up comments from users on the same IP address taunting me about having censored them, daring me to publish their comments. When I cleared the queue and approved the backlog, I suspect some of them returned to delete these follow-up taunts.
Whatever comments were left on the post, I published in whole. Apart from one very early response to a personal friend pre-virality, I responded to no one. Watching the mutation of the public discourse in the comments section was intriguing. It was like an organic emergence of publicly-archived social commentary and sentiment in real time.
I started to receive texts, DMs, and PMs from personal friends. They were telling me where they spotted my post being shared and whom they felt the ‘crowd’ was. They told me my post was being shared by the ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once. They told me my post was being shared as the ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once. I was being thanked and rebuked for being ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once.
One friend congratulated me for being discussed on a popular local forum known for light dissidence and political humour. Another told me to celebrate for having “made it”. Many others told me to “be careful”, that the ISA “will come for you”, that “they are watching”. Media savvy friends told me to document or archive everything. I know my friends were genuinely concerned for me, but it was all very bizarre, especially at 0400hrs in the morning. I didn’t understand what it was that I was meant to be fearing.
There were other friends who were exchanging a whole different set of questions in groupchats on Whatsapp:
“I changed my profile picture. Have you?”
“I wrote my eulogy already. On Facebook. You go and see.”
“Hey when are you posting your lky tribute?”
“omg this one is so good. Mine like so lousy.”
The public policing of grief taking place on my blog was also manifesting in very real and tangible ways in my private life.
On the admin page of my site, the list of search terms leading to my blog revealed a handful of catchphrases that people were taking to mind. But the sharing of my post also began to mutate.
This, for example. The original header image that I used was swapped to an image that appeared later in the post. Decontextualized. That quote listed was also not from me, but from one of the commenters. Wrongly attributed. When put together in this fashion and widely circulated online, it seemed to suggest that I was trying to rally for a specific agenda.
And then I reached a milestone. The first expletive.
Up till then, the hate comments have been a mix bag of amusement, annoyance, frustration, and then terror to me. Reading this one, however, the first senseless, empty, expletive-laden hating, triggered an unusual response in my body. As much as I am embarrassed to admit this, I knew my heart rate was increasing and my body temperature rising. I also hate to say this, but even my hands were beginning to quiver a little.
And I cannot explain or account for this reaction.
I feel no fear. I know my work. I still stand by my work. I understand the agenda of these haters. I understand the current context of public grief policing and mob lynching against anyone who ventures out of the sanctioned hegemonic modes of grieving. But I cannot understand the disconnect between my supposed confidence, my rational thought processes, and the involuntary corporeal reactions my body was displaying.
Then I realized that this person had left his email address behind. I looked at the admin page of my blog and realized many many commenters had their email addresses linked. Some of these were commenters who left vaguely related comments, and included links to their own tributes on their blogs. Publicity on a viral post. I get it. Some were genuinely engaging in a discussion. Which I appreciate. But many email addresses were linked to hate comments as well. Did they forget to log out of some platform on the Internet?
I Googled some of these email addresses out of curiosity. It is surprising how much of a digital trail a hate comment can lead to. Professional websites. Affiliations with religious groups. LinkedIn profiles. CVs on a website seeking jobs. I am not trying to conflate achievement and status with character, or suggest that class and education precludes viral hate. But I suspect many of these haters were unaware of their digital trails, and less conscientious about the protection of their personal data. Even the one person listed as a “digital marketing specialist” at a “digital advertising firm”. The educator in me was so alarmed.
On the flip side, there was some productive discussion that provoked more nuanced thinking. I was also very happy to receive private correspondence from a handful of students and some undergraduates who shared their thoughts with me, and respectfully asked if they could use the material in their classes or dissertations. Some strangers on social media and friends of friends who were educators mentioned that they were using this post in their classes. It was all very encouraging, especially in times where I was being told I “needed healing”, to “come home”, to “try harder”, or to “get a life”.
I don’t feel bitter. But I feel for the Internet haters.
Hate on if you want to. I can’t tell you how to grieve. That is your prerogative. But realize that voices from the Other have their rightful airtime as well. And remember to check your digital trails.
Maybe the Internet isn’t for everybody.