Can — and should — the internet be tamed in Singapore?

The Internet is filled with weird and wonderful things. 

From pictures of cute tiny animals to hilarious memes, there is something for everyone. But the truth that every regular Internet user knows is that there is darkness lurking online too.

And there is one basic rule for every frequenter of forums and social networks: Beware The Trolls.

Trolling in itself can take many forms, ranging from tongue-in-cheek to downright abusive. Trolls find ways to get under your skin. They’re that itch that materialises on the sole of your foot right after you’ve tied your shoelaces. They’re the stray cats who start fighting and wailing at the same moment you’re about to fall asleep. They’re that person ahead of you in the nasi padang queue who buys the last bergedil.

Any observer of the Singaporean online community can see that trolls are everywhere, popping up in comment threads and Facebook posts. Some trolls are known to be funny, more online prankster than annoying stalker. Others are more annoying, rude or petty, harassing anyone who disagrees with them.

The government and mainstream media sometimes seem fixated with what happens online. Perhaps seeing it as a threat to their monopoly on power and narrative, they are eager to paint the online community as the “Wild Wild West” where battles have to be fought. Creative acronyms like DRUMS (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears) are created to depict the Internet as a place of irresponsible trouble-makers. Everyone who isn’t with them is, apparently, a troll.

This is a rookie mistake. Lines cannot be so easily drawn in the online community; things change and change again too fast for that — a troll can be a troll, then not a troll, then a troll again, all within the same session before the individual needs a toilet break. Simplistic definitions have no place on the Internet.

A recent example of this would be the trolling of the Singapore Advocacy Awards (SAA) by SMRT Ltd (Feedback). A day after SAA’s launch SMRT Ltd (Feedback) began to direct people to a fake pageduplicating posts and information from SAA but changing vital information like nomination dates.

In stellar online fashion SAA responded by trolling the trolls, thanking them for the attention and challenging them to tennis “court action”. SMRT Ltd (Feedback)’s counter-troll was to award themselves the title of Most Outstanding Civil Activist of All-Time.

Welcome to the Internet. Troll-ception happens often here. Anyone can play.

Further abroad, even companies like Google and the Huffington Post are trying everything from deploying moderators to forcing people to use their real names in order to restore civil discourse.

But the truth is that a page like SMRT Ltd (Feedback) in Singapore shows how difficult it is to eke out an "Us versus Them" struggle online. 

The group often targets the establishment, but doesn’t stop there: it’s also gone after fake accounts (more troll-ception!) and now civil society activists. It's a clear example of how government efforts to lump trolls and activists into one category are misguided and inaccurate.

To tar the whole online community with the same brush and insist that the existence of trolling justifies state intervention into online space is disingenuous.

Critique and shit-stirring aren't the same things, and to act as if they are is to sanitise a vibrant space that is interesting and exciting precisely because of this complexity.

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