COVID-19 social media vigilantes: A valid or harmful way of dealing with rule breakers?

COVID-19 social media vigilantes: A valid or harmful way of dealing with rule breakers?

covid-19 online vigilante camera phone
Taking photos of someone breaking COVID-19 rules for social media? Experts explain the motivation behind this behaviour. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: What would you do if you saw someone not wearing a mask in public?

Mind your own business, or perhaps advise the person to wear a mask because it is now required by law and helps reduce the spread of COVID-19?

Another option might be to report the infringement to the authorities. However, some people have decided on a different approach: Snap a photo and post it on social media.

With numerous Facebook groups and Telegram chats providing a platform for this in Singapore and elsewhere, experts CNA interviewed have explained why online vigilantism has appeared to become more prevalent during the pandemic.

They said some see it as a social responsibility borne out of genuine concern for public health, while others cannot stand seeing others get away with breaking the rules as they themselves are compliant.

Some of these vigilantes might also be motivated by jumping on the bandwagon and seeing their posts go viral, the experts added.

But observers said this behaviour risks inciting unhappiness and rallying the online mob, influencing others to attack the alleged offenders with sometimes xenophobic comments.

They added that vigilantes could also end up doxxing alleged offenders or identifying them wrongly, while victims may suffer public shame that far outweighs the official punishment.

man reads sign at cordoned off chess playing area during singapore's circuit breaker period
A man reading a sign posted on the cordon of the chess playing area, a popular spot in Chinatown, during Singapore's "circuit breaker" period. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

However, supporters of vigilantism said it acts as a deterrence for would-be offenders, whose actions could harm public health and prolong stifling COVID-19 restrictions. 

Ultimately, the experts agreed that vigilantes would be better off reporting potential infringements directly to the authorities.

COVID-19 RULES HERE TO STAY

Earlier this month, the Government amended the COVID-19 regulations to ensure they remain in force indefinitely, and beyond Singapore’s exit of the “circuit breaker”. 

These regulations allow authorities to legally enforce safe distancing and other preventive measures like masking up to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Those who do not comply could be fined S$300 for the first offence, and may face higher fines or prosecution for subsequent offences.

READ: COVID-19 laws in force indefinitely after amendments which include new details for post-circuit breaker

In light of the law, Facebook groups like SG Covidiots and SG Dirty Fella have encouraged users to call out offending acts.

SG Covidiots, created in April during the early days of the circuit breaker, has more than 30,000 members. The group’s banner calls itself a “movement to stop the COVID-19 pandemic”, with a description that says “covidiots doing their best to (sabotage) us all”.

The SG Dirty Fella page says it showcases “the unhygienic acts, behaviours that promote the spreading of infectious diseases by people living in Singapore”. On Mar 27, the page’s admin created a group in the same name. It now has close to 3,000 members.

lau pa sat during singapore's circuit breaker period
A deserted Lau Pa Sat during Singapore's "circuit breaker" period. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

Posts in the groups usually comprise photos or videos of possible infringements, including not wearing masks, gathering in groups or not keeping a safe distance. While some of the content is grainy and taken from a distance, others can clearly identify the people in them.

WHY ONLINE VIGILANTISM

Dr Jiow Hee Jhee, Digital Communications and Integrated Media programme director at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), pointed to several notable incidents of online vigilantism in recent months.

This includes “furore over the SG Covidiots Facebook group which has named and shamed a variety of individuals from young to old”, he told CNA.

lau pa sat during singapore's circuit breaker period (1)
Lau Pa Sat hawker stall operators waiting for customers. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“Many may feel frustrated as their routines are heavily disrupted, and as such, could be more likely to lash out due to said frustrations,” he said of the reasons for online vigilantism, highlighting that rules for behaviour are constantly evolving during the pandemic.

“As such, society is constantly adjusting to it, and some may feel that others who violate the new ‘social norm’ are not taking this seriously, and therefore lash out at the ‘violators’.”

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 online shaming and the harm it can cause

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser said some vigilantes could dislike the rules themselves but feel compelled to comply, and so “can’t stand the thought of offenders getting off with impunity”.

“They want to ensure that there is fairness in the sense of ‘if I am complying, why can’t they’,” he said.

A man using smartphone
(Photo: Pexels/Adrianna Calvo)

Associate Professor Edson Tandoc Jr of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), who researches social media use, said vigilantes could expect others to take the same precautions out of “genuine concern”.

“Some initial studies in online vigilantism found that people who engage in it tend to report high levels of social responsibility,” he said.

Others might also be doing it as a form of “uncertainty management”, he added, explaining that filming someone seemingly not following rules could give them some form of control over a seemingly uncontrollable situation.

READ: Commentary: The ubiquity of cameras and social media fuels unhealthy mob behaviours

Assoc Prof Tandoc said some vigilantes are also motivated by wanting to go viral, with other viral posts providing incentive to engage in the same behaviour for the same kind of attention.

“Some individuals might be motivated by what others term as a bandwagon effect – everyone is doing it so I might as well do it,” he added. “This has become much easier with camera phones, social media access and universal Internet connection.”

Dr Tan said the echo chamber of online vigilante groups reinforces users' belief that “what is wrong ought to be punished”. “It also makes them feel good about themselves, that they are the law-abiding ones.”

HARMFUL EFFECTS

But Dr Jiow said there are many examples of how vigilantes can end up exposing the wrong person, especially as many people leave a large digital footprint in this day and age.

“As social media has become a large part of many of our lives, the images, videos, comments and captions that we post form our digital footprint,” he said. 

“While we may not think much about it, even if our accounts are private, this information can still become public if someone screenshots your posts or comments. In cases of mistaken identity, this can be the result of pure coincidence and sheer bad luck.”

A man using a laptop
A man using a laptop. (File photo: Jeremy Long)

Dr Jiow, who is also a member of the Media Literacy Council, said this makes it important for people to better manage their digital footprint. This can include turning off geo-tagging or location settings, setting accounts to private and avoid oversharing information.

“Not only does it matter in this particular example of being wrongly identified, which may feel far-fetched to many, it has other far-reaching consequences,” he continued, highlighting exploitation by cybercriminals as one example.

READ: Woman who made 'sovereign' remark faces two more charges, including one for not wearing a mask on fourth occasion

In perhaps the most notable case of mistaken identity in recent times, vigilantes wrongly identified the head of a tech company as a woman who was repeatedly caught on video not wearing a mask in public, and who declared herself “sovereign” in one clip that went viral.

The Singaporean woman Paramjeet Kaur, 41, has been charged in court for offences including refusing to wear a mask and being a public nuisance.

READ: Woman filmed without mask, proclaiming 'I'm a sovereign' to be remanded at IMH

The tech company in a statement thanked everyone for “promptly redacting the misinformation once they uncovered the truth”, and quoted its chief executive as saying she was grateful for the well-wishers who reached out and stood up for her.

For those who were mistakenly identified, Dr Tan it might not be so easy for them to convince others, especially acquaintances, that they were not the culprits.

grabfood deliveryperson walks in raffles place during singapore's circuit breaker period
A Grab food delivery person walks along Raffles Place on the first day of Singapore's "circuit breaker" period. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

Even for those who were correctly identified, “the public shaming may far outweigh the S$300 fine they have to pay if convicted”, he added.

Dr Jiow said the way online vigilantes behave encourages the naming and shaming of offenders. “As a result, individuals can often incite each other towards unhappiness and chaos,” he said.

RACISM AND XENOPHOBIA

One consequence of such posts is xenophobia, Dr Jiow said, with many netizens jumping on board to call out the offending person based on race.

“This can be extremely damaging to the community, especially in a multi-racial society like Singapore,” he stated.

lau pa sat stallholder sleeps during singapore's circuit breaker period
A Lau Pa Sat hawker stall attendant sleeps during Singapore's "circuit breaker" period. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

One video posted on Apr 16 to Facebook page Tiagong, which is described as a Singapore gossip page after the Hokkien word for hearsay, shows a man hounding a couple who were purportedly out for a run and seemingly of Indian descent.

The video showed the man not wearing a mask, with the person who took the video tailing the couple for a distance and saying: “I would like to see you run.” Those engaging in strenuous exercise can temporarily remove their masks.

The video was captioned: “Tiagong should send them back to India if they choose not to follow our measures.”

READ: Singaporean student in London says he was assaulted after reacting to COVID-19 comments

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said in a speech on May 30 that the COVID-19 pandemic has divided societies across fault lines, including the issue of foreigners.

“In another case of a lady who proclaimed herself a ‘sovereign’, the instinctive reaction of many people was to label her a foreigner,” she said.

“And when another person of a similar profile emerged at Sun Plaza, a stereotypical labelling along racial lines was made by netizens.”

MANAGING VIGILANTE GROUPS

On SG Covidiots, its admins have set rules that prevent hate speech or bullying. “Bullying of any kind isn't allowed, and degrading comments about things like race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender or identity will not be tolerated,” the rule said.

Its founder created a poll on May 26 that asked users if admins should censor and delete posts that “try to play the race card and stir tension”, or leave them for users to denounce. As of publication, majority said they supported the censorship option.

FILE PHOTO: A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration
A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken on Jan 6, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo) 

The approach is different on SG Dirty Fella, where one admin told CNA that potentially racist or xenophobic comments are left untouched for authorities to take action.

“Everyone is responsible for their comments,” said the 30-year-old admin, who only wanted to be known as Ganesan. “We try not to remove these comments so that it will be evidence for those who feel offended to lodge a police report.”

However, Mr Ganesan said admins remove personal particulars and addresses from posts, but do not censor faces or vehicle plate numbers as authorities might use these to track down alleged offenders.

When asked about the group potentially encouraging a mob mentality, Mr Ganesan said “only those who break the law are unhappy as they feel ashamed”. “What is posted are not false and backed with photographic and video evidence”.

Boat Quay
Boat Quay near Singapore's Central Business District is quiet amid circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos) 

He said admins will try to verify the authenticity of posts “as much as possible” through online sources and contacts, adding that the posts serve to help authorities identify and catch alleged offenders.

Ultimately, Mr Ganesan said the group was created to raise awareness of unacceptable behaviour before mistakes are made.

“During these difficult times, we need to be supportive of the Government's policy and rules to fight COVID-19,” he stated. “This pandemic is currently affecting everyone financially and in their daily lives.”

GETTING THINGS WRONG

NTU's Assoc Prof Tandoc acknowledged that some of these posts are well-meaning, with a few assisting authorities in investigations.

After a Facebook user posted photos of crowds gathering outside food and beverage outlets along Robertson Quay, police were able to trace several individuals involved. Seven people were eventually charged for the offence.

READ: 7 people charged over Robertson Quay gatherings during COVID-19 circuit breaker

However, Assoc Prof Tandoc also pointed to several cases where online vigilantes got things wrong.

“Social media platforms have not only made it easier for just anyone to access a potentially mass audience, but to some extent this access also seemingly comes with no accountability,” he added.

In one incident in March, a picture posted on social media showed a couple transporting cartons of eggs in public, with commentators accusing them of panic buying – a hot topic leading up to the circuit breaker.

But a subsequent post by a netizen who claimed to know the couple's child said the couple were school canteen vendors who needed the eggs for their business, and that they were unable to get their usual supply due to actual hoarders.

FILE PHOTO: People stock up on food supplies after Singapore raised coronavirus outbreak alert leve
FILE PHOTO: A man and a child wear protective masks, looking at empty shelves of canned food and instant noodles as people stock up on food supplies, after Singapore raised coronavirus outbreak alert level to orange. (REUTERS/Edgar Su)

In an Apr 29 Facebook note titled The Idiocy Behind SG Covidiots, user Wei Li Fong said the “demonising comments” accompanying such posts are usually made without knowing the personal circumstances surrounding the incident.

For instance, he said a grandmother could be eating at a void deck because her daughter-in-law had forced her out of the house, or an elderly man walking around with his mask down might have momentarily removed it because he had difficulty breathing.

“These may not be valid reasons for breaking laws, but they sure are grounds that ought to spare someone from being subject to unbridled online vitriol,” he wrote.

REPORTING TO AUTHORITIES

So, what should people do if they see potential infringements?

NUS’ Dr Tan said if their intent is to correct the action, rather than ensure the person gets due punishment, they should try approaching and gently reminding him to do the right thing. Those who forgot to put on a mask deserve a second chance, he added.

“Perhaps if you are carrying an extra mask with you, offer it to them,” SIT’s Dr Jiow said. “You might be surprised by how others respond to kind words and actions.”

Geylang Serai Market (5)
An SG Clean ambassador cautions members of the public on safe distancing measures at Geylang Serai Market, Apr 9, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

If there is a fear that the person might not take it well and create scene or start a fight, Dr Tan said the safer way might be to take a video and report him directly to the authorities.

Authorities have urged the public to submit feedback on safe distancing infringements via the OneService app, saying this will help them identify hotspots for enforcement. The app has received about 700 reports each day since the function was launched.

Dr Jiow said it is important for people to ask themselves about their purpose of recording or photographing an individual and posting his image online, and the consequences of these actions.

“I believe ‘civic duty’ can be expressed by reporting those ‘deviant’ acts to the authorities directly – there is no need to publicise it,” he said.

READ: Commentary: Is online vigilantism the best way to exact social justice?

Dr Jiow said individuals should not take the law into their hands, with Assoc Prof Tandoc saying authorities have the skillset, mandate and resources to investigate and verify potential offences.

In cases where users misinterpreted what they saw, Assoc Prof Tandoc said there should be a way for users to inform or notify others who saw the original post that it had been corrected or clarified.

“Some of them posted corrections, apologies and clarifications, which reached a much smaller audience than their original misinformed posts,” he added.

SPREAD LOVE, NOT HATE

Nevertheless, Dr Jiow said it is encouraging that groups have emerged to counter online vigilante communities.

One such Facebook group is SG (not) Covidiots, which invites users to “spread positivity and solidarity” instead of public shaming.

“On top of discouraging negative behaviours, we can also participate in and encourage positive online behaviours to fill the space with more positivity,” Dr Jiow said, pointing to donations and mass shows of support for various groups during the pandemic.

“If you see your friends or family (engaging in online vigilantism), you should talk to them about it and recommend some of the proper channels to address their concerns.”

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Source: CNA/hz

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