Public shaming, Peer surveillance, and the Profitability of internet drama.

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.

Singaporeans react to Donald Trump.

At the confluence of three events in the past 20 hours, discourse on Presidential Candidate Donald Trump was trending on Singaporean social media: 1) Trump claimed that Singapore is among the Asian countries committing the “greatest jobs thefts” from the US; 2) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the next Presidential Elections in multiracial Singapore will be “reserved” for Malay candidates; 3) A journalist who grew up in Singapore and now works in the US penned a semi-viral article about how “Donald Trump is the embodiment of everything Singapore taught me to fear about democracy“.

How are these events connected, and how have Singaporeans reacted? I trace some coverage in the Singapore media landscape and focus on Facebook reactions on a dedicated post by mainstream English language newspaper The Straits Times on Trump’s assertion. Images were screengrabbed at 2300hrs-2315hrs, 8 November 2016, GMT+8. This post was penned at 0600hrs, 9 November 2016, GMT+8. Continue reading Singaporeans react to Donald Trump.

#thoughtsandprayers, Grief hype-jacking, and Saturation fatigue

It’s been an agonising series of weeks after a string of grievous events in various parts of the world. While I have been tracing vernacular responses to global grieving events on Instagram since 2014 – some of the case studies are archived here – this has been difficult to do of late between my personal loss and the onslaught of public grieving. Self-care first, right?

Of late, global tributes on trending hashtags have been featuring a more prominent disdain for, rejection of, and critique on public grieving in memes and thoughts&prayers en masse. Continue reading #thoughtsandprayers, Grief hype-jacking, and Saturation fatigue

The First Hour Post-#JakartaBlasts on Instagram.

On 14 January 2016 at 1155hrs (GMT+8), the first of several bomb blasts (and later, gun battles on the street) took place in Jakarta outside a Starbucks coffee shop in Sarinah, Thamrin, Jakarta.

(Rolling report from The Guardian here. Timeline of “extremist attacks” in Indonesia here.)

Although international news outlets are now (2300hrs, GMT+8) mainstreaming the “#JakartaBlasts” hashtag on Twitter, in the very earliest hour, vernacular emergence of hashtags on Instagram differed.

I track the initial hashtags that emerged on Instagram from (primarily) Indonesian users (based on brief user bios, language used, and context given) between 1200hrs and 1330hrs, and handcode the earliest Instagram posts.

Screenshots taken from public Instagram hashtag streams on 14 January 2016, 1300hrs, GMT+8.



The first hashtags that emerged were the usual social movement tropes in the form of #PrayForX and the #Locale of the incident. #PrayForJakarta and #PrayForIndonesia debuted alongside #Sarinah and #SarinahThamrin.

The next were #JagaJakarta (take care Jakarta), #SaveJakarta, #StaySafeJakarta, and #SaveIndonesia.

#KamiTidakTakut (I am not afraid), #JakartaUnderAttack, and #DoaUntukJakarta (pray for Jakarta) were the last to emerge in the first hour.

Several high circulating posts on social media have asserted that Indonesians are primarily using the #KamiTidakTakut tag to express solidarity and their stand during this incident.

However, Instagram posts on this tag predate the Jakarta Blasts by months. In the first hour post-blast, there were only 222 Instagram posts on the #KamiTidakTakut tag, of which only 6 were related to the Jakarta Blasts. Most of the earlier posts were in relation to sporting events.



There were four main categories of PrayForJakarta posts.

The first was text posts bearing “PrayForJakarta” in various fonts.

The second was “PrayForJakarta” text against images of the blasts.

The third was “PrayForJakarta” text against images of the Indonesian landmarks.

The fourth was “PrayForJakarta” text with artwork or photography.

Monumen Nasional

Monumen Nasional (Monas) became the iconic Jakarta emblem to circulate during the incident.

Monas was photographed in daylight,

at night time,

and beautifully illustrated.

National Icons

Well-wishes and prayers were captioned under Jakarta’s iconic cityscape,

the Indonesian flag,

and tigers.

Live Media Coverage

Like in recent disasters, a vast majority of posts were reposts from live media coverage.

This included photographic captures of television screens,

screenshots of news websites,

and screenshots from Twitter.

Live Ground Coverage (trigger warning)

Most strikingly, several Instagram posts featured what appeared to be eye-witness accounts at the site of the blast. This included aerial views of the traffic, bloodied victims, damaged concrete, and stray photographers.

Mixed reactions

Smaller thematic streams presented mixed reactions.

Some of these were anti-terrorist sentiments,

some were messages of resilience and anger,

while others were selfies with captions bearing prayers or tributes.

But perhaps the most troubling were seemingly opportunistic posts jumping onto the hashtag bandwagon, in order to market wares or attract traffic to their Instagram accounts.

A handful of backdated posts, like the following, were even edited to include trending hashtags to increase visibility.


As with most disasters and social movements, reactions to the Jakarta Blasts also borrowed from broader global emblems such as:

The peace sign,

The ribbon,


Keep Calm,

and prayer.

Curiously, a handful of Instagram posts also featured animations of bombs, akin to the rifles of #CharlieHedbo.

See also Instagram during
#JeSuisAhmed and #CharlieHedbo,
and #OccupyCentral.

Over and out,