You like potayto and I like potahto
By Toh Hsien Min
In the middle of April, I recompiled what I call my TTD list, and the inventory of Things To Do - which excludes work - stretched to no fewer than twenty-four items. One of the things that was not on the list was to watch the unabridged video recording of the exchanges between Law Minister K. Shanmugam and academic Thum Ping Tjin at the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, but I found myself clicking through to it during an afternoon off, no doubt trying to put off more substantive work such this editorial. I knew I did not properly have the hours for the full testimony, so set up a split screen in order to multi-task. But just as one can implant the idea of an elephant into an audience's minds by asking them not to think of an elephant, once the Law Minister began with "This is of course not a Select Committee to examine evidence of Operation Coldstore" before proceeding to do some version of that albeit for clearly distinct purposes, I found that my eye kept getting drawn back to the video. Not for the minutiae of facts, mind, but for the theatre: the testimony was more interesting for the body language and facial expressions leaked by Thum much more than by the Minister. I would go as far as to say one could turn off the audio entirely and still intuite from the visuals how the exchange went.
The opening remark was spot on, of course, that the whole testimony was a sideshow to the main issue - on what the correct legislative response to fake news should be, which in itself is not an easy challenge to solve. But likewise I cannot help but wonder if fake news is ultimately a sideshow to the challenges presented by social media. As an article by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in the New York Times illuminates, while everyday users might not intend to push extreme views, the way social media constructs information feeds around each user that concentrate what that user engages with tends to, through a mirroring effect, conjure up social proof of that user's positions. And to the extent that social media also pretty directly provides evidence of an audience apparently reading and reacting to anything that one posts, it encourages people to think that their points of view matter. This didn't use to be the case in more old media frameworks with editors that functioned as filters and advertently or otherwise contributed to the powerlessness people used to feel about their ability to effect social change (although... editorial anonymity is underrated). Without necessarily chipping away at the bedrock of modern democracy, I would put it that people's points of view have never mattered any more or less. Even if Facebook appears to give ideas agency, all it does is to increase their velocity.
But the real negative of this sort of reflexive training is that over time social media actors learn not to listen. When an academic research network has recently to bar a "well-known anti-racism activist" from its Facebook Group for using racist language, surely something is wrong with the mode of engagement? "We must have social justice as long as it's my brand of social justice" cannot, by definition, be social or just. And even if much of the conversation is centred on the dynamics of social media, I would fear that this failure of perspective is infecting the offline world as well. For example, at a recent MCST meeting, simply saying that, based on the information in the discussion to date, I had a position and would vote on the issue in a certain way if it ever came to a vote was sufficient to trigger some rudeness from another party whose view I would not be voting for. If this world is becoming one where I can have my own opinion only as long as it's the same as your opinion, then I'd say we're much better off in the old order where our opinions didn't really matter.
Nevertheless, in case my opinion matters, many congratulations to Wahid Al Mamun for the honourable mention of his poem "my mother thinks i dream in bengali" at the 2018 Hawker Prize.
It was surprisingly difficult to narrow down to the poems to nominate for that new prize administered by Sing Lit Station, partly because the past year's selection of poems showed a high quality throughout rather than peaks and troughs, and partly because of the different intentions of each poem. Just to use the current issue as an example, within our selection we have a pair of poems by Adrian Immanuel Bonifacio that are connected, and reading one without the other would weaken both. Meanwhile, See Wern Hao takes the parallel structure further with his twin cinema poem, while Ang Shuang's pair are more experimental than most of her work to date. How does one choose between them? Or, should an alternative prize come to being, how does one pick between the two excellent stories by Ang Kia Yee and Marshall Moore?
(That is, without falling back to the facile answer: by exercising one's opinion.)QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018