COMMENTARY: "I was being mistaken for a much more humorous, much more creative and much more infamous Singaporean — who was now supposedly behind bars for online vigilantism."
In 2014, Singaporean entrepreneur Geoffrey See woke up one morning in Thailand to his photograph being used in a spoof article that claimed that the SMRT Vigilanteh had been arrested at Arab Street drinking his favourite teh tarik.
Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2020 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 55 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
"Instead of 'Fake News', Let’s Think About Trust" is an essay by See, first published in The Birthday Book, about his experience as the victim of fake news, and his reflections on the balance between freedom of information and the potential pitfalls of fake news.
By Geoffrey See
I was a victim of fake news long before the election of Donald Trump popularised the term. I woke up one morning to news of my own arrest, from a hotel bed in Bangkok.
How did I get there?
Straits Times interview about Choson Exchange
In 2009, I had founded Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based organisation training North Koreans in economic policy and entrepreneurship.
I loved teh tarik, and I loved bringing North Koreans to Arab Street. With Sultan Mosque on Arab Street, the Kuan Yin Temple near Sim Lim Square and the Sri Krishnan Temple right next to it, the Bugis area showcases the diversity I cherish in Singapore to my Korean guests.
In 2014, I was interviewed by The Straits Times about my work for a section called "The Long Interview’" This interview brought the Straits Times photographer and myself to Arab Street for a photoshoot of me improbably enjoying teh tarik under the mid-afternoon sun.
The teh tarik at Kampong Glam was, needless to say, delicious, and the interview was great for my cause.
Arrested in Singapore while in Thailand?
A year later, the Singaporean Facebook humour page, SMRT Ltd Feedback (by the self-styled Vigilanteh), was feuding with Jover Chew, the Sim Lim store owner who became notorious for his mistreatment of a Vietnamese customer.
Vigilanteh posted Jover’s address and phone number online — an epic troll move — and was promptly accused of online vigilantism.
Shortly after, a Straits Times article floated around suggesting that Vigilanteh had been arrested at Arab Street drinking his favourite teh tarik. The article carried my picture.
I woke up to a flood of concerned messages and emails from friends and family who had seen the article.
"Are you alright???"
"Huh, you that funny arh?"
"Wah lao, you did not tell me. You so famous?"
"You have been arrested?"
I was perplexed. I was in Bangkok. I opened my browser to research what happened.
Turns out I had been trolled.
The Vigilanteh had used ShrtURL, a platform Time magazine described as "the most dangerous website in America", to create a spoof article.
I was being mistaken for a much more humorous, much more creative and much more infamous Singaporean — who was now supposedly behind bars for online vigilantism.
I was not amused. I called the police.
Teh tarik-drinking Vigilanteh or Choson Exchange volunteer?
After being suitably distressed, and being reminded that I was unimportant enough for anyone to care about after a few days, the incident got me thinking about the nature of media in today’s wired world.
If anything, fake news should have been no surprise to me. After all, I work on North Korea issues, a world where hearsay is printed as news, magnified by a media echo chamber, and becomes the narrative of a country that is then impossible to correct.
The frenzy of social media and the pressure of round-the-clock reporting transformed the execution of politician Jang Sung Taek in the country to an execution by artillery, and then into execution by hungry wild dogs.
The last bit was our very own Straits Times’s contribution to the English-language world of news.
Who knows? It might have inspired Ramsay Bolton’s inglorious end in Game of Thrones.
This is a world where governments plant stories in the media to drive an agenda, start whispering campaigns to signal policy shifts, or leak “information” to float policy balloons or influence it.
I am torn. I am educated in the liberal arts tradition of U.S. universities, where freedom of information is sacrosanct.
But I also have personal and professional experiences dealing with “fake news” and a tech background, which exposes me to the troubling nature of deep fakes.
Democratisation of tools for content creation leading to more fake news
But the problems we face go beyond false claims and fake arrests of teh tarik-drinking vigilantehs.
We are dealing with a deeper information issue which prescient former CIA Media Analyst Martin Gurri calls the "revolt of the public". He argues that the explosion of social media and the democratisation of the tools for content creation have demolished the oligopoly on information that is the elite media.
In place of a coherent view of the world, authority is scrutinised and challenged at every step. The gap between public expectations and performance by these institutions becomes unbridgeable, resulting in pessimism and nihilism.
Before, we watched the Twin Towers go down on Channel News Asia; today, every taxi driver has a different story for where MH370 disappeared to, gleaned from multiple media platforms.
Conspiracies always existed, but they now have Facebook-scalability.
We risk drowning in the information matrix created by Mark Zuckerberg’s "Fifth Estate" — the newly empowered public with their social media tools.
The risks are high because once discontent tips over into open conflict, societies spiral into duelling narratives, impossible dialogue and unbridgeable positions.
In Hong Kong, we saw how relative calm swiftly collapsed into months of chaos. Young Hong Kong friends forwarded tweets of police brutality to me, while older Hong Kong residents showed me videos via WhatsApp of young democratic activists bullying a returning Harvard professor.
Access to information drives feedback & accountability
In these divided "realities", it is hard to see a resolution that does not end in violence.
And yet, access to information also gives us the eyes to see Singapore clearly — it drives feedback and accountability.
I remember talking to an extremely well-connected ruling party activist after the 2011 election. The person was shocked. How dare people forget what the PAP did for them?
I asked the person when was the last time he or she took public transport, squeezed among the toiling masses, hearing unfamiliar Beijing accents in a neighbourhood estate? 15 years? Probably more.
Perhaps the person would have been more prepared for GE 2011 if the person had read more online bulletin boards and less Straits Times.
A cohesive society needs a common body of knowledge, experiences and worldviews to draw on. But the new information matrix has balkanised our perceptions of "reality".
I admit I don’t as yet have concrete ideas on where the balance between information cohesiveness (read: propaganda) and free information flow should lie.
But we have entered an era where technology-driven changes, inequality and great power competition mean this balance will be increasingly in flux — fast-changing and immensely consequential.
It is not something a single piece of "fake news" legislation can solve, and it would be dangerously simplistic to understand the problem simply as one of "fake news".
Instead, there is a need to systematically rethink the social compact between our institutions and the public and how we restore trust in authority in the new information matrix.
If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can view the Workbook issue for this essay here, and sign up for The Birthday Workbook newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource
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Top image via Facebook / Geoffrey See and NordWood Themes on Unsplash.