The Many Faces of Moderation

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driLast weekend, over a few drinks, Nicholas Aaron Khoo threw an interesting question to me that prompted his recent discussion on whether the Internet can be self-regulated. The question has been examined in the early days from the submission of the “Proposals for Internet Freedom in Singapore” by a group of bloggers to the engagement with public feedback on the government appointed  AIMS Report – Engaging New Media: Challenging Old Assumptions with regards to the issue of community moderation. To Nicholas’ credit, he constructed a well-thought counter example by looking at the example of Ping.sg, a blog aggregator in Singapore that is suffering from the lack of community moderation despite the tools made available by the owner of the platform. Hence my intention of this article, rather than just argue only on the merits of community moderation, also examines the many faces of moderation and self-regulation of the Internet in Singapore

When the senior Minister of State (Information, Communications and the Arts) Lui Tuck Yew said last month, about the issue of being “quite apparent the Internet is not an effective self-regulated regime as some may have touted it to be”, three aspects of the argument come to mind:

  • The different communication channels in the Internet both support and not support that the argument that it is not effective self-regulated regime: The diversity of communication channels in the Internet made it difficult to assert the effectiveness of each channel in the overall picture. For example, in the world of online forums, self-regulation is possible with not just the platform owner but his or her appointed moderators who are doing the work. One can also ascertain whether the moderators are credible to do the job. It all depends on how the moderators are appointed in the first place. In Nicholas’ example, he used the blog aggregator which the onus of responsibility is not just on the owner of the platform but also the community which supports the system. As a matter of fact, I can flip the same argument to say that even successful blog aggregators like Digg can be gamed, which made self-regulation impossible. Then we come down to the blogs, which can be complex in arguing whether self-regulation is possible. That comes to my next point.
  • The Economics of Self-Regulation or Moderation: Let me break down the bloggers of a specific type of content (be it sports, entertainment and business) into three categories: the bloggers can choose to have (i) public identities, (ii) pseudonyms or (iii) anonymous identities. One can look at these three types of bloggers and examine how self-regulation decreases with the degree of anonymity. A public blogger, while writing a controversial or challenging article will find it tough to weigh between his or her street credibility and reputation to make assertions or claims without some basis of evidence. Think about it, the self-regulation has already taken place when the blogger writes with his public name on his blog. In fact, whatever he or she says can be subjected to the legislation of the country he or she inhabits. Then look at the other extreme, you will realize by saying what you like, you sacrifice credibility by being anonymous at the same time. It makes it hard for anyone on the street to totally support the position of the anonymous blogger even if the points laid forward held a certain degree of truth in it. Hence it is hard to assert the bloggers cannot “self-regulate” themselves because of a few sock puppets (with anonymous identities) trumpeting some controversial statement. It will be a shock if any public blogger in the Singapore social political blogosphere has condoned the physical assault of a Member of Parliament. The reason is simple. Any reasonable (and not necessarily educated to the highest degree) person will know that it is morally wrong to exert physical harm on another human being. That comes to my final point why I am a firm advocate of community moderation
  • Community Moderation promotes a mature and engaged society: That’s where I will put down the reason why we need to continue to advocate community moderation as a possible alternative to hard-nosed legislation. Oftentimes, in Singapore, some Members of Parliament (from both sides of the aisle) are asking why Singaporeans are disengaged from the community. The reason is that there are not enough civic education or activity in the Singapore society that is leading Singaporeans towards the behaviour of a moderate and mature society. We often hope the other guy will resolve the problem. Instead of using an online example to advocate that self-regulation in the Internet is impossible, I can use another situation in the offline world to demonstrate self-regulation is just as difficult. If I see a gangster beating a normal citizen up, instead of calling the police and try to stop the fight, I stand there and do nothing. Isn’t that situaton equivalent to those netizens in Ping.sg who did not even bother to flag the content that pollutes the platform? 

Fundamentally, the regulation of the Internet is a complex issue which we are unlikely to solve all of them in one day. There are many pieces and the Singapore government will not concede some of them in accordance with their own interests. That leads me to draw on this final thought about the implmentation of community moderation. In truth, there are two simple ways to set up a community moderation panel for the Internet specifically pertaining to the blogosphere: either let the government appoints its own committee or the bloggers themselve organize themselves into a committee to police themselves. To be honest, neither choices are possible to be implemented, because in both cases, it’s a catch-22 situation. However, as of all situations, the answer surely lies in the middle or a mixture of both situations to proceed towards an optimal outcome.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist