It’s a shameful day for Singapore in light of the international blogosphere. According to the Straits Times (an intentional leak?), the People’s Action Party (PAP) has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and to put up postings anonymously. You can read the entire news report from MrBrown’s blog or via this newsprint photo (on left).
On Anonymity vs. Transparency
I’ve always encouraged the idea of the government conversing with their grassroots communities online. However, the manner in which this operation is being conducted (especially anonymously) not only damages their credibility, but puts patriotic netizens like ourselves in a negative light. Anonymity has its uses, as it typically works for those who are encumbered by way of facing personal danger in light of revealing his/her identity. As such, anonymity can be used for noble or malicious intent. In the case of a political party, anonymity could have an adverse effect for an established organization, where the lack of transparency would diminish public trust. Government officials ought to be credible by way of authority, thus it is puzzling why they would rather remove all accountability for their actions online.
On the Act of Astroturfing
Due to the open nature of social media such as blogs, wikis and forums, social engineering exploits such as astroturfing have been popular. While the government’s lack of transparency could be seen as being ignorant of online ethics / etiquette, the act of astroturfing represents a more sever act of irresponsibility. Briefly citing Astroturfing on Wikipedia:
In politics and advertising, the term astroturfing describes formal public relations (PR) campaigns that seek to create the impression of being a spontaneous, grassroots behavior. Hence the reference to the “AstroTurf” (artificial grass) is a metaphor to indicate “fake grassroots” support.
The goal of such campaign is to disguise the agenda of a client as an independent public reaction to some political entity —a politician, political group, product, service, event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt (“outreach,” “awareness,” etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by anything from an individual pushing their own personal agenda through to highly organised professional groups with financial backing from large corporations.
When the government as an organization fails to understand how they should engage social spaces such as blogs and forums, they do more than hurt themselves, but the well-being of thriving online communities that consist their very own citizens (i.e. the loss of social capital).
Judging from what I’ve seen in the local media (including newspapers, blogtv.sg, government policies), Singaporean authorities (as well as pseudo blog experts) have an arduous journey ahead of them in learning how to grapple with this new media. It appears that they find it easy to conjure up incredible jargon such as “Web 3.0“, “Killer Apps”, “New Media Capabilities Group”, but really… perhaps all our government needs to do is to stop blowing their own horns and simply listen to their people.
The blogosphere’s reacted since yesterday’s news, as seen here…
Update 1: For a starting definition of Social Media, take a look at Dion Hinchcliffe’s article entitled “Social Media Goes Mainstream“, which comes with a neat infogram depicting the social media ecology. For his third point, he also notes that honesty and transparency are core values. Spin and attempting to control, manipulate, or even spam the conversation are thoroughly discouraged. Social media is an often painfully candid forum and traditional organizations — which aren’t part of the conversation other than through their people — will often have a hard time adjusting to this.
Update 2: Woah, and this happened not too long ago…