SINGAPORE: Irish singer and former Boyzone star Ronan Keating recently posted a scenic sea view picture on Instagram that broke the Internet in Singapore.
The funny thing is: I have a sunset version of a similar shot, taken on a flight back to Singapore after a long trip. It was a sight that warmed the very cockles of my heart – I knew I was home.
What shocked me was how Mr Keating had transformed this familiar and comforting glimpse of home into a doomsday scenario: “Tankers held in Singapore not allowed to dock because of the virus”.
Do you recall alarming news of cruise ships turned away at multiple ports? Multiply that by the number of ships in the picture, and you’ll get the chilling effect of this caption.
MISINFORMATION HAS CONSEQUENCES
When Singaporeans in the Twittersphere spoke up, Keating promptly removed the picture. And when some demanded an apology, his immediate reaction was an expletive-laced post.
Shortly after, he edited his language with a toned-down apology: “I recently posted this pic after being told by a local in Singapore that the reason they were all parked up was due to the Virus. I have been recently informed that this is not true and that this is how the harbour always looks. I apologise if I offended anyone in my post you all know I would never purposefully do that,” his Instagram said.
Keating could have stopped there but could not resist a special note: “To all you haters out there, get on with your short life.”
It is worrying that Keating chose to respond in such a manner. He might have made an honest mistake but his sorry-not-sorry response suggests that his error was a trivial one that should be overlooked, forgiven and forgotten right away. But should it?
And had his post continued to be up with the original caption, would authorities not have moved to issue a correction directive under the Protection From Online Falsehoods And Manipulation Act (POFMA) and asked for Mr Keating to put that correction up on his Instagram and Twitter accounts?
The reality is that Singapore and many cities around the world are in the thick of a global health crisis. Healthcare workers are fighting tirelessly against a faceless enemy, which threatens the lives of many sick and vulnerable patients all over the globe. In Singapore, contact tracing teams are working in shifts seven days a week simply to contain the virus.
Besides health concerns, every day, people and retailers bear the brunt of the economic fallout from the crisis – pay cuts, wage freezes, business losses, with many worried about potential foreclosures and lay-offs.
The general sentiment on the ground is that we should grit our teeth, get back to normalcy, and get through these difficult times together.
In this context, Keating’s sensational caption was incredibly hurtful. It painted a false picture of the situation in Southeast Asia, and undermined all the good work going into keeping Singaporeans healthy and Singapore ports open.
FACT CHECKING IS A SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Indeed, in recent years, social media has exponentially increased our news sources.
This growth in social media has been exciting in many ways, where it has also fuelled the explosion of personal expression.
Many of us are also psyched that we get to hear or interact with our pop idols directly on their accounts.
However, when a person, celebrity or not, makes a false claim about a country, culture or social matters, misinformation can be detrimental, even dangerous.
In such cases, it is vital for each and every one of us to think before sharing and pause before posting, to fact-check and verify the veracity of extraordinary claims, rather than mindlessly pass on the information.
Surely the buck must stop with us and not with some anonymous source who sent a picture with a caption to us?
During this latest COVID-19 crisis, we have seen misinformation manifest on many forms, from mischievous misinformation about school closures in Singapore that may have been spread to seed fear or panic, to ludicrous claims that steaming masks makes them safe to reuse.
Once put out there, such information can have a life of its own and lead to more confusion in such times of uncertainty.
READ: Commentary: Outbreaks of diseases make us exaggerate or under-estimate risks. The COVID-19 shows that
PERHAPS CELEBRITIES SHOULD BE MORE JUDICIOUS
Keating’s fans were quick to point out that everyone makes mistakes – a truism that no one can refute. To be fair, if this were posted by a regular person, he may be swiftly corrected, but is unlikely to have been publicly roasted the way Keating has been.
The crux of this lies in the fact that when celebrities and public figures make a comment, their opinions have a wider reach and carry more weight, even if it relates to an area outside their expertise.
In Keating’s case, how Singapore’s shipping industry has been impacted by an infectious disease is clearly completely out of the singer’s area of expertise to comment on, but he broadcasted it anyway.
He should know his words have an undeniable impact on the people in Singapore, as well as his fans across the world, when he’s someone many trust.
Indeed, celebrities who choose to use their platforms to voice their views have a duty to use it responsibly. I would also urge them to think twice about whether they have something substantive and informative to contribute that raises the level of such discussions.
THE RISE OF CELEBRITY ACTIVITISM
There are scores of examples, however, where celebrities put their fame to good use, to build awareness of wicked problems facing the world and raise funds for good causes.
Long before Greta Thunberg came of age, Leonardo DiCaprio has been championing environmental initiatives. His foundation raised US$100 million to fight climate change in 2018 and pledged US$5 million to restore the rainforests in Brazil last year.
Reese Witherspoon spearheaded the Time’s Up initiative to fight systemic sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and raised over US$22 million in defence funds for victims of sexual harassment and enlisted over 800 lawyers.
Still, it’s clear not all celebrity activism or commentary have a positive impact on the society, especially when spoken from a position of privilege. Some stars themselves have been quick to point this out.
“A lot of celebrities, did, do and shouldn’t [give their political opinions]. A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family,” famed actor Mark Walhberg said.
READ: Commentary: Protecting public health is key in novel coronavirus fight but we must also tackle xenophobia
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. When commenting on political, national, health or cultural issues, public figures should first consider the repercussions of their statements, and whether they’ve taken all steps to educate themselves on the topic at hand
If there is any chance that their views may breed division, panic or fear, as in Keating’s case, perhaps it’s better that they refrain from doing so. In a world that has seen the polarisation of societies, stoking such sentiments can be incredibly irresponsible.
So, this is not just a matter of “haters” hating. And if Mr Keating wanted to dish some out, he’s also got to be prepared to receive some. It comes with the territory.
As Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore noted in their gracious clarification on Twitter in response to the post put by Mr Keating, #WeCouldntSayNothingAtAll.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.